November 30, 2023 11 min read
In the latest episode from our Polite Conversations series, we delved into the crucial topic of cannabinoid access for veterans with Nikki Colon, a veteran and cannabis health advocate. Our discussion revealed the transformative and complex role of cannabinoids in veterans' lives, and we tackled the nuances of access, stigma, and holistic health approaches.
*The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Nikki started us off by sharing her personal journey, which involved being a vet tech, joining the fire service, working with the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a 911 dispatcher, and then enlisting in the Army at 30.
Nikki: “It was rough. Once I got hurt, I had to learn about the different medicines and learned that I was allergic to a lot of medicines, because I had never taken them before. Once I had gotten out of the army, it was honestly an accident, but I ended up working at a dispensary in Washington. I loved it, I learned so much! And one of my biggest things was natural healing. You know, coming from native descent, I started to really get into the whole natural healing thing and using different herbs and botanicals. And it actually changed my life. Learning I was allergic to certain antibiotics, I couldn’t use them for certain ailments. And so I had learned about herbal remedies and about using those and making them myself.”
Nikki also shared how she came to find cannabis products as an alternative medicine to help with her insomnia and the pain associated with her injuries and subsequent surgeries.
Nikki: “Cannabis started my passion for more herbal remedies. Especially for severe insomnia and severe pain. I had had 4 major surgeries in 3 years. Unfortunately, one thing the military likes to do is just throw medication at things. And sometimes they don’t even realize this, because you don’t always get to see the same doctor all of the time. Once I started using certain products, I would tell my doctors that this stuff is really helping me with my sleep and with my pain; And they would ask me if I wanted certain pain meds, and I would say “well, no”. Finally, when a couple of my surgeons saw how much better I was doing not taking pain meds but instead using cannabis, they knew I wasn’t abusing it and I was using it for specific ailments, and they were ok with me taking them.“
We then dove into the complicated and often-fraught relationship between cannabis, active duty military, veterans, and the Veterans Association (VA). Nikki discussed her anxiety surrounding the use of cannabis and hemp-based products while actively in the Army and as a veteran. The military has a strict zero-tolerance policy, prohibiting any use of cannabinoids, regardless of legality or even 0% THC hemp topicals. This creates a sharp fear around any type of exposure for many service members, which often carries over into their lives as veterans — even when they legally could consume cannabis and hemp.
Nikki: “At one point, when I was “active duty”, I was even terrified to touch a bottle of hemp-based topical ointment. I remember at the time I had my dog, Lily, who had a tumor on her head and I was going into a dispensary looking for CBD oil to help her with the pain. I was sweating bullets with anxiety just going in there, even though I wasn’t even looking for products for me. I was so scared because I thought I could get into trouble just for buying oil for my dog.”
Nikki continued to share how doctors in the military and the VA approach prescription medications and shed some light on their stance on cannabis use as an alternative remedy.
Nikki: “When you are in the service, if you get put on any kind of narcotic, you are given a profile for your narcotic which is pretty much a doctor’s note that says “Hey, they are on this medication and they might test positive for opioids or whatever.” And then, if you do test positive, they will make you retest and double-check with your doctor just to make sure.
I had found out that I had a mild allergy to oxycodone, and for my second surgery, they didn’t give me any pain meds even though I had been officially retired from service for over a year because it had said in my profile that I was allergic to oxycodone. So they were only able to give me Tylenol.
And so my boyfriend at the time helped me by going out and purchasing a variety of CBD products because it was my only option, and it actually worked wonders. And it saved my life because I was in such excruciating pain for a month and a half. It was definitely a learning situation for what I can use for pain and certain ailments.
It was probably the best discovery that I had ever had and it was better than any pain med that I had ever had, and lasted a lot longer as well!”
We went on to discuss what it’s like for veterans to access cannabinoids after they retire from active duty. Nikki also shared her experience with developing insomnia while on active duty and how cannabis products helped her find relief and sleep.
Sue: “When you retire, is there any communication to you about being a vet and whether there is a difference in your ability to access cannabinoids?”
Nikki: “It all just depends. I was really scared the first time I had done it. I tried it for insomnia eventually and it made a world of a difference. It was my come to Jesus moment with Marijuana, I got to sleep! When I was in the military I was probably getting 3-4 hours if I was lucky… I had never had insomnia before, and I guess it happened between all of the stress, trying to do your job, making sure you don’t forget anything, and then waking up early for your posts and dealing with traffic jams on the way to work.
They say the workday is supposed to end at a certain time. But you know, things happen, you have to stay later, especially if you're in a certain rank and above, you're always staying late. And then you realize that when you get home, it's already 6 or 7 o'clock. And then you have family to take care of and stuff like that. So now it's kids' dinner and everything, stuff you have to do around the house. And then you have to get ready for work the next day and at that point, it’s like 10 or 11 pm.
And then you try to fall asleep and your mind is still going to worry about what's going on the next day. So it's like your brain is always going, which is one reason why I still have that issue today. And I know so many people who do too, where their brain just won't shut off at night, and that's what keeps them up. You know, they can't turn it off, and that's one of the reasons why I absolutely love Ease Your Mind! It literally shuts my brain off and turns the white noise off so I can actually sleep.”
Nikki then continued to discuss her experience being open with her VA and Army doctors about her use of cannabis products as alternative medicine.
Nikki: “In my first experience with it, I was nervous. I was really scared. Then I saw two different doctors for two different things and both of them were very receptive to it and not full-on negative about it. They were like, “Look, we can't condone it, but if it works for you and you're not doing too much, then it is fine.” They were very receptive to it. And I was like. Oh, okay. So I don't have to be scared.
From then on, I think every time I see a new doctor, I'll tell them and that's one of the first things. It's one of the first things I tell them, especially if I know they're going to do blood work and lab work and stuff like that. I'm like, “Look, I'm just going to be honest, you know, flat out, this is what I do for pain management. This is what I do for my personal care, you know. Sure, occasionally I may do it recreationally, but it's really not that often.”
Nikki also explained how it’s important to consider the potential for you to test positive for marijuana, even if you are using hemp-based products, because of the trace amounts of THC that can be present. With this in mind, Nikki further emphasized her approach to being honest and open about it with her healthcare providers from the start.
Nikki: “If you do blood work it's probably going to show up as positive for marijuana products or marijuana in any way, shape, or form because there's always a trace in what I use, especially if it comes from a dispensary. So you know, I'm just very open and honest about it and honestly, they appreciate it because then we don't have to play guessing games.
One of the things is not being ashamed of what you use to help yourself, whether it's mentally, physically, emotionally, or whatever. The case is, you know, a lot of people are ashamed of what they use, so they don't admit to it. And then they try to deny it and then it just kind of gets weird after that.”
We then approached the topic of cannabis use for veterans versus active duty and the potential risks of losing VA benefits. The official VA policy states that veterans cannot be denied Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services and benefits because of cannabis or hemp use, but the frustrating reality is that most veterans still deal with a lot of fear, stigma, mixed messaging, and confusion about what is permitted, which becomes an unfortunate barrier for those who could find real relief from medicinal consumption, or be more open about their use without fear of consequences.
Nikki: "To my knowledge, it's always been different depending on your situation and what benefits you have. I'm 100 percent permanent disability, my ratings can't ever change because they can't take the metal out of my foot unless they're going to remove my toe and they can't really do that!
Most veterans, depending on their ratings, have to do yearly checkups and it all depends on the doctor, the location, the VA, and the person. But I do know that there are a lot of veterans out there who are scared to lose benefits if they test positive [for THC], so they will stop using within enough time. My previous boyfriend would often tell me that he can't consume any because he's worried about losing his benefits. Right before his annual exams, where they make sure everything is still the same and nothing has changed, I had to watch him go through his insomnia and still have to do stuff like that because he didn't feel comfortable disclosing and he felt there was a risk to that.”
We continued trekking through some of the murky territory laid out by the official stance of the VA versus the reality of veterans’ experiences with cannabis use and their anxieties about testing positive for THC.
Sue: “If you look at the VA’s official stance, it's like, “You can't lose your benefits”, but then it sounds like there is still a lot of legitimate fear about being open about it.”
Nikki: "I think because the fear is still there for doctors too. They can't condone it, they can't prescribe it, they can't advise it, they can't do anything with it."
Sue: "But in your case, like you were saying, you felt ok disclosing it once they signaled “it's, it's okay, we embrace it and we know it's part of your health plan and regimen and routine.”
Nikki: "Yeah, you know, with all my surgeries and with all surgeries in general, they tell you not to smoke cigarettes within 24 to 48 hours of surgery because of how it can interact with anesthesia. And then I was just upfront and was like, “Okay. So I'm not going to smoke cigarettes because I don't. But can I still take my nighttime edible to help me go to sleep?” And they're like, “Oh yeah, that's fine.” They really didn't care as long as I didn't take anything before I went in.”
We went on to discuss how Nikki came to find the right combination of cannabis-based products, cannabinoid profiles, and other natural and herbal remedies to help relieve some of her ailments.
Nikki: “It's all learning. Every person has trial and error to figure out what works for them and how it works. Especially with veterans. You have to find out for yourself, because again, what works for me as a veteran is not going to work for some of my friends as a veteran. I have a friend who has MS and I have another friend who has PTSD and anxiety and depression and insomnia. And some things that work for them won't work for me. Everyone's body makeup is completely different as to what they can't handle and what they can and can't do.
I’ve kind of got a good routine with my body, to understand what’s going on with it and what it can and can’t handle. Because I’m not a big-time recreational user, I can’t handle high amounts of THC. I’m actually a bariatric patient, so I’ve had weight loss surgery. And we have this reaction to high levels of fat, high levels of sugar, and things that we aren’t supposed to eat. Any extremes makes us really sick. It’s actually called “Dumping Syndrome”. And with “Dumping Syndrome”, you experience things like vomiting, shaking, cold sweats, and it’s almost like an anxiety attack. And so there were times when I was like, “Oh my god. What’s going on with me? What’s happening?” And I ended up finding a link between those symptoms being triggered by higher doses of THC.
It first happened when I was actually having an anxiety attack before work so I used a new THC pen that I had in order to help. And then when I got to work I started sweating, and having even more anxiety, and feeling like I was going to puke. So I ended up telling my coworker what was happening and she asked “did you take anything?” and I told her about the vape pen I used. And she told me, “It’s the high level of THC. You’re not used to that much THC. Your body can’t handle it. It’s just too much for you.” So now I know that and now even if I do smoke flower, I usually stick to the high CBD strains or high CBG strains because there is almost no THC in those.”
We ended our conversation by reiterating Nikki’s advice for veterans to be upfront and open about their questions and concerns regarding cannabis use with their healthcare providers.
Nikki: “Put your fears and questions on the table… So that you can get an answer. And then if you don't get an answer, ask again I guess. Ask people, who you know and trust. Ask people who you know who suffer from the same ailments. You know, it's one of the best things.
That's why advocacy and sharing is so key and why we continue to do that. And hopefully, we help more and more people not just access but also break that fear. Because like you said, that is the biggest barrier. Half the battle is just breaking that fear and that stigma.”
Our biggest takeaway from this was the importance of breaking the stigma and fear associated with veterans using cannabis-based products. Our conversation, centered around Nikki’s personal journey and practical insights, underscored the ongoing effort to overcome barriers, reduce stigmas, and advocate for comprehensive health solutions for veterans and active duty military. Click here to watch highlights from the webinar and if you are interested in connecting with Nikki on cannabis and veterans health she can be reached through IG @dat_apachi_savage.
After this conversation, we were all left with a sense of frustration that veterans still aren’t getting the clear answers they deserve and need on how to interpret VA policies around cannabinoid use. The Polite education team is inspired to continue research in this area, and is working to connect with VA healthcare professionals and decision-makers to gain a clearer understanding of how their policies are applied in real life, and where there are exceptions and risks. If you or anyone you know has personal or professional insight to share, that can provide greater clarity, please reach out to us at email@example.com as we would love to speak with you!
We are committed to working towards providing our veteran community with answers that can remove barriers standing in the way of much-needed natural relief and better quality of life.
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