[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of Perry Parks’ story, written by the same author, appeared on AlterNet, published December 17, 2013. This updated version includes quotes and language from the original piece.]
Perry Parks first entered the army in 1962 as a bright-eyed 17-year-old. After serving 3 years, including 15 months in Korea, he found himself back home and out of work. He reentered the military as a 20-year-old French horn player and sports parachutist, hell-bent on flying a helicopter –– it didn’t matter where.
“Where” turned out to be the Vietnam War, and Parks, like 30 percent of all Vietnam War vets and at least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, left the army with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While he remained employed by the military, serving a total of 28 years before retiring, he became disenchanted with the concept of war over time. Now he says killing is an unnatural act.
If you take the average person off the street, he said, he will not be able to point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger.
“They have to be trained to kill, so most people will pull the gun up at the last minute and miss,” Parks said, noting that the U.S. military got hip to this trend following WWI, when soldiers subconsciously missed the mark about 75 percent of the time.
He was featured in the 2009 Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Good Soldier, which follows five combat vets, each from a different American war, as they sign up, go to battle, then eventually become disillusioned with war and rethink what it means to be a “good soldier.” In the film, Parks explains how the act of killing later torments so many combat veterans, himself included.
Like many, Parks has tried a literal handful of authorized pills to treat his insomnia and other war-related symptoms of PTSD, but he’s found the thing that helps him most is just to smoke some marijuana.
Now, Parks is leading the national fight to allow veterans to access cannabis. He is the former president of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network, which focuses on medical marijuana policy reform in the state, and continues to work with the organization as a legislative liaison. His primary job is to reach out to state officials and raise money for the organization.
Today, nearly half of US states (23), and Washington DC, have legalized medical marijuana, and following this month’s election it is completely legal in four states for adult use. However, of the states where medical marijuana is legal, only a handful allow PTSD to qualify patients to access medical marijuana. Parks lives in North Carolina, which recently passed a medical marijuana law that limits access to specific cases –– mostly those with terminal illnesses –– and restricts cannabis use to CBD-only (CBD is the non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant, which CNN’s resident doctor, Sanjay Gupta, popularized with coverage of its ability to treat an epileptic girl named Charlotte Figi).
Before the state passed the CBD-only law, any form of cannabis intake was considered strictly illegal, but that never stopped Parks from being vocal about cannabis once he learned about its miraculous abilities to successfully treat his PTSD symptoms. He says he considers it his duty as a Christian to spread the truth about the plant, especially in light of the staggering number of veterans who take their own lives on a daily basis in this country.
Twenty-two veterans per day commit suicide in the US according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics. There were approximately 21.5 million U.S. military veterans in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and last October, 9.7 percent of post-9/11 veterans remained unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of suicide among U.S. veterans has never been higher, and in the U.S. right now, about 385,000 veterans have brain injuries. Studies have found that the risk of PTSD doubles when a soldier has suffered a brain injury. As an LA Times article reported in December, “[U]p to a fifth of U.S. service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home with a blast-related concussion or post-traumatic stress disorder –– or both.”
Parks has brought medical information about cannabis to meetings with the local DA and mayor, his preacher, and even the local sheriff to try to educate them about the proven medical benefits of cannabis use. He also takes “full advantage” of his military background.
“For years I didn’t wear my uniform [to advocate], but got to thinking about how the joint chiefs of staff, when they go in and ask for millions of dollars for the military, they don’t go in in civilian clothes,” he said. “They wear their uniforms with all them brightly colored ribbons up front.”
Most who leave the military do not wear their uniforms rhetorically, but Parks said he wears his “like an upside-down flag” to signal distress in the name of vets who are denied access to a safe medicine that could help them.
Although he’s been criticized by some for using military garb to make a point, he said his choice to do so is a moral prerogative.
“Sometimes you have to go against the grain,” he said. “I told my pastor, just like you feel you were called to be a pastor, I feel I was called as a Christian to tell the truth [about medical marijuana]. … It’s not a sin to be ignorant, but if somebody gives you a chance to open your eyes, then it is one of the greatest sins not to be willing to open your eyes.”
Parks calls it a “healthcare tragedy” that cannabis has not been made more widely available to veterans with PTSD, as well as the many others who could benefit from its use.
Government organizations like the FDA and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have continually blocked federally sanctioned studies on the topic. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been working for decades to achieve government approval for a study that will look at whether smoking or vaporizing marijuana can help reduce PTSD symptoms in 50 veterans with PTSD.
What little research is available paints an encouraging picture. Brain imaging research was published in May in the journal Molecular Psychiatry providing physiological evidence behind cannabis’ ability to mitigate some PTSD symptoms. In July, 2013 High Times published an article titled “Treating PTSD With Pot,” which states:
“Research has shown that there is a connection between the amount of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain, known as CB1 receptors, and post-traumatic stress.”
The Leaf Online published an article on December 16, 2013 by Paul Armentano noting that the scientific journal Drug Testing and Analysis had published evidence in July, 2013 that the use of cannabis and cannabinoids likely mitigates symptoms associated with PTSD.
Parks intends to continue to spread the truth and fight for medical cannabis access.
“This is happening to veterans right now because of bad laws and bad policies that aren’t based in facts and research,” he said. “Once you create an unjust law and color people’s minds so that they can’t see the truth anymore, you have some responsibility for that. You also have an obligation, if you recognize it’s the truth, you have to speak the truth.”