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Cannabis saved Sarah Stenuf’s life.

She left the military in May 2013 with epilepsy from a brain injury, combat post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain and insomnia. Treatment of her various illnesses seemed to entail pill after pill, hour after hour, she said. The medications Stenuf was prescribed — all 16 of them — made her social and psychological issues worse. She began to spiral, becoming violent and irritable, and described her mental state at that time as zombie-like.

She tried to kill herself twice and was in a coma for at least two weeks after each attempt. About six years ago, after Stenuf expressed her desire to try ending her life a third time, her wife made a call.

“She called up a few vets and was like ‘Sarah’s on her last limb, and you guys know this,’” Stenuf recalled.

As she and the vets rolled joint after joint, Stenuf finally began to feel less hopeless. At first, she admitted, the cannabis was just another substance she used to avoid addressing her problems. But eventually, Stenuf began reducing her medications pill by pill as the cannabis helped alleviate many of her symptoms.

“It was just a bunch of vets that happened to come over with cannabis one day and save my life,” Stenuf said.

Sarah Stenuf picks leaves off of one of the
Stenuf picks leaves off of one of the "cherry" cannabis plants in the greenhouse.

Stenuf went on to start Veteran’s Ananda, a nonprofit based about 25-miles north of Syracuse in Fulton that utilizes traditional and non-traditional treatments to support and rehabilitate U.S. Armed Forces members, veterans and first responders. She’s one of several veterans across New York state that are trying to shift the conversation around cannabis and encourage its use as a holistic medicine tool for veterans and civilians alike.

There are about 18.2 million veterans in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census. More than 80% of those veterans support medical cannabis programs, according to statistics from Veterans Cannabis Project. Veterans chose to help the defenseless, protect the country and serve a bigger purpose, and for this reason they develop a strong sense of camaraderie, Stenuf said. Many vets suffer from complex forms of trauma that stem from other aspects of their lives, which led them to seek out military service in the first place, she added.

The veteran experience, Stenuf said, is often difficult to define or explain to civilians. She recalled feeling purposeless and hopeless after leaving the military. Women, minorities, post-9/11 veterans, veterans ages 18-24 and those with service-related mental disabilities are the subgroups with the most difficulty transitioning to civilian life, according to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics.

This Veterans Ananda greenhouse is used to house plants in the flowering stage of development.
This greenhouse is used to house plants in the flowering stage of development.

Mark “Gino” DiPasquale, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and co-founder of Rochester-based Veterans Cannabis Collective Foundation, said people come back “broken” from their time in the military.

“We’re sick and hurt,” he added.

DiPasquale, who was at one point on 17 different over-the-counter prescription drugs, echoed Stenuf’s sentiment about the pills being a temporary or ineffective solution. These scripts might buy veterans time to try and sort out their issues, and some might even be effective, but they won’t cut it in regards to treating depression and anxiety, he said.

“Those [over-the-counter] drugs kill people, and cannabinoids don’t and can’t,” DiPasquale said.

Veterans, who make up just about 5 percent of the U.S. population, are often seen as protectors of their communities, Stenuf said. Moreover, the trauma symptoms many vets experience run parallel to those experienced by civilians. As veterans begin to trust and develop a positive relationship with cannabis, Stenuf hopes that civilians will be empowered to incorporate it into their care routines.

Veterans identify common struggles in returning to civilian life

Vets ID common struggles

Various barriers make it difficult for veterans to get cannabis, including accessibility, cost and poor supply and quantity, Stenuf said. The lack of U.S.-conducted research is also a major barrier to cannabis access, DiPasquale said. Researchers must first obtain approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct research on a Schedule I drug like cannabis. Meanwhile, countries without those restrictions such as Israel are leading in medical cannabis research.

For a veteran that’s already struggling with mental health issues, taking the time to find a reasonably priced dispensary and then physically go there for cannabis is a huge challenge, Stenuf said. This leaves vets beholden to the cannabis black market.

“We can’t get it as easy as we can Percocets delivered straight to [our doorsteps] overflowing out of a container,” Stenuf said. “I don’t have $800 a month to spend on the black market on my s—, so I have to grow.”

"Those [over-the-counter] drugs kill people, and cannabinoids don’t and can’t."
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mark “Gino” DiPasquale

Veteran’s Ananda has a 22-acre farm in Fulton, about a 30-minute drive from downtown Syracuse. VCCF became the first cannabis hemp farm in Monroe County in 2017, and the organization also runs the country’s first non-emergency VA and PTSD assistance hotline for veterans.

When Stenuf decided to alter the treatment plan she was on and begin reducing her over-the-counter medication regimen, she had to search for doctors that would have honest conversations with her about the shelf life of her medicines so she could properly wean off them.

Because cannabis is a Schedule I drug, VA doctors won’t prescribe it, much less talk about it with their patients.

Stenuf has shared her experiences with lobbyists and lawmakers when medical marijuana came up for consideration in the New York state assembly — even though she’d been laughed out of nursing homes and other nonprofits when she presented these treatment concepts just a couple years before — in the hopes that other veterans wouldn’t have to be introduced to cannabis through such back-door routes as the ones she had to take.

Stenuf runs Veteran's Ananda in Fulton, promoting alternative methods to reintegrate and medicate former servicemembers. She grows cannabis on her 22-acre farm, which she has personally used to treat her service-related health and mental issues.

Military members in particular are trained to be ethical people and follow orders from the federal government, DiPasquale said. As long as the government disseminates information about cannabinoids being considered toxic based on their Schedule I classification, veterans are working against the ethical “brainwashing” that’s been instilled in them and may continue to believe cannabis is toxic, he said. DiPasquale recalled meeting vets with late-stage cancer on their deathbeds that still refused to consider cannabis as a treatment option.

Still, Stenuf said legalizing cannabis in New York would mean heavy regulations and monitoring, especially because stipulations that N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested so far do not allow for home growth or caregiver growth. The people who need cannabis would ultimately have a harder time getting it, she said. Moving gradually towards legalization would allow communities to develop their relationship to cannabis on a smaller level first, Stenuf said.

Until people in the veteran community feel that their needs are being adequately met by public and private healthcare systems, they’ll continue to take action on their own, Stenuf said.

“We in our community have taken it upon ourselves to say ‘screw you, we’ve taken care of our brothers and sisters before, we’re gonna do it again.”