Advocating for medical cannabis for veterans in need
From a young age, retired United States Marine Corps (USMC) Sergeant Sean J. Major was taught the importance of discipline, integrity, service, and respect. He joined the Marines in 2008, where he suffered serious injuries that have led to debilitating pain, nightmares, and cognitive issues. What saved his life was cannabis. Today, Sean has given up everything in pursuit of the only medicine that keeps him and his fellow brothers and sisters alive.
A rocky childhood creates a protective young man
Raised by a single mom in rural Washington state, Sean had a turbulent childhood. He witnessed his father, a retired Army Airborne veteran, become abusive and enraged because of undiagnosed, untreated post-traumatic stress (PTS). In high school, he was in a racially provoked altercation in which a 19-year-old stabbed him; Sean nearly died.
It was through God’s mercy, and his grandmother’s tough but gentle love, that he found his way out of the anger and hurt. Sean knew his purpose in life was to protect. He became a Marine.
A Marine is a Marine for life
During a Pacific Rim exercise in the summer of 2010, Sean suffered his first traumatic brain injury (TBI). The injury was severe. It took over a year for him to be somewhat well again, but he had undiagnosed PTS, which in addition to right shoulder, back, and joint pain, caused Sean suffering. He had trouble concentrating, experienced sleep disturbance, nightmares, and vivid memories.
Despite all this, Sean deployed to Africa to protect the Gulf of Aden from Somali pirates in Winter 2011. He returned to be promoted a Sergeant. Yet his untreated issues and symptoms were becoming increasingly problematic.
Symptoms lead to diagnosis and treatment
Sean’s commanding officer eventually ordered him to get help in the form of a 10-week intensive outpatient program. It was then—two years following his deployment—that Sean was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (PTS). “I learned then that I had sustained a total of four TBIs during my seven years of service,” shares Sean. “A brain scan also showed permanent brain damage.”
Under medical guidance, Sean began taking medication. He went to group therapy, attended anger management classes, and sexual abuse counseling. Holistic therapies, like art for healing and cognitive behavioral therapy, were also incorporated.
In May of 2015, he became a recovering service member of the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West. Sean’s therapy focused on education to improve clarity of mind, and daily adaptive physical therapy to strengthen his body.
Yet while the Wounded Warrior Battalion became a bright light in Sean’s life, the military’s position on medical cannabis—and his advocacy for it—has left a devastating imprint on Sean’s current life.
Being denied a medicine that works
While receiving medical care for his pain and PTS, Sean found himself inundated with medications that made him feel worse. He was prescribed upwards of 20 different drugs that came with severe unwanted side effects of aggression, social withdrawal, lack of energy, grogginess, headaches, nausea, constipation, dizziness, and feeling zombie-like.
Sean felt the medications were killing him just as much as PTS. In need of true relief, he was encouraged by his father to try medical cannabis. So in October 2015, Sean paid out-of-pocket to see a doctor outside of Navy Medicine, who gave him a state physician recommendation for medical cannabis use. Sean submitted this recommendation to Navy Medicine, which was very supportive.
Unfortunately, while Sean is the first person to receive a physician recommendation for cannabis in his medical records, the Marine Corps would not permit him to use this form of therapy for PTS while actively serving. His request was never approved. Sean believes his vocal stance on currently serving military and veterans having access to this form of medicine was the reason his medical military discharge was delayed, and he was denied retirement compensation. Sean does receive disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“This shouldn’t even be a conversation,” Sean says. “Medical cannabis should be an option for every veteran—serving and retired.”
Statistics show there are 23-74 recorded veteran suicides and pharmaceutical-related deaths every day, but the actual number could be significantly higher given that multiples states (including California and Texas) do not document this data.
To Sean, this is irresponsible and inhumane. “I just don’t understand how the government is OK with us coming back with trauma from what we did or witnessed, but we cannot use medical cannabis. We can be highly medicated on prescription drugs, but using a plant from nature is prohibited.
“A veteran should not feel the only way out of the pain is to end life,” he says. Sean tells other service members to not let pride get in the way of seeking support. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Finding a way through the pain
For Sean, coping with the loss of his identity as a Marine and the turmoil surrounding his medical discharge has been difficult. While he knows he made the right decision not backing down from his belief that veterans deserve better, it cost him everything.
“I am doing everything I can,” Sean emphasizes. “And yet that is not enough. I risked my livelihood and future—which I would do again—for this fundamental right to treatment. This journey hasn’t been easy, but I refuse to give up. My guys are dying; I can’t sit idle.”
So with his family, his fellow service members, at the forefront of his decisions, Sean is finding a way to move forward—day-by-day—to improve veteran care.
Drawing on life lessons to move forward
Today, Sean is managing his health the way his father showed him, and his grandmother inadvertently taught him as a horticulturist. Receiving his degree as a certified hydroponist through Archi’s Acres, a hydroponic farm at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Sean devotes his time to organic cultivation.
He is matter-of-fact when he explains that medical cannabis saved his life: “I would not be here without it.” Using myriad methods to administer his medicine, including tinctures, sprays, vape pens, water pipes (for smoking the actual flower bud), capsules, and raw CBD crystalline, he takes his medicine accordingly each day. “I medicate like any cancer, epilepsy, or TBI patient would using prescription medicine,” he explains.
The positive effects on his health are remarkable. He can walk and is even able to run around his block, something unattainable a few years ago. When using an Indica strain of cannabis, there is a significant decrease in his back and shoulder pain, too. Sean is also calmer and less anxious. With renewed mental clarity, his speech has even improved. The extreme photosensitivity he suffered with for years has also lessened; his eyes no longer hurt in the light and his once-frequent headache has become much less present.
To round out his therapy, Sean goes to a gym three times a week. His goal is to spend fifteen minutes doing some form of exercise. Additionally, he attends his VA appointments and cognitive behavioral sessions. But what brings him the most happiness is devoting his energy to helping other vets.
Not one to give up
“Helping veterans helps me mentally not focus on the negative,” Sean says. “I am still not OK, and the pain I live with is endless. I live in one reality, and fall asleep to find myself in a worse one. PTS is no joke, and no one talks about it enough.” (Thankfully, he doesn’t remember his nightmares if he medicates heavily with cannabis before bed.)
Sean says it is so hard to go through this process alone. He has felt abandoned by many, and is truly grateful to the “very few” who continue to stand by him.
Sean stresses the importance of family members remaining present: “Yes, your loved one has changed. But they are still the same person, and need you now more than ever.”
This is the reason Sean tirelessly advocates for medical cannabis. Veterans who could be saved through cannabis are killing themselves, or already feel dead inside and alone. He wants to give them newfound hope, purpose and a reason to live—for their families and themselves. Sean will not give up; he will do whatever he can to make sure veterans can legally treat pain with medical cannabis.
At 27, retired USMC Sergeant Sean Major is a true example of a warrior. Humble, determined, and brave, he is using his voice to take a stand, to make change, and to save lives. Pain and PTSD may be part of his life, but he is not letting that stop him from living out his dream of helping, serving, and protecting others.
“Fighting for medical cannabis for veterans gives me a purpose. All I want to do is make a difference. I owe cannabis my life, and I know it can save the lives of my fellow brothers and sisters too.”
Semper Fi Fund: semperfifund.org
VETality Corp: vetalitycorp.org