Oregon Guard soldier's use of medical marijuana runs into Army's drug abuse policy
June 09, 2010
Julie Sullivan, The OregonianSpc. Richelle Golden arrived at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state in February in a wheelchair, expecting to stay a few weeks and be medically retired. She immediately reported that she used marijuana to combat pain and nausea and produced her Oregon medical marijuana card. But five months later, the Oregon Army National Guard soldier is still at Joint Base Lewis-McChord facing court-martial and squeezed between her home state, which allows medical marijuana, and the Army, which forbids it.
The case is playing out at the base where last month members of Congress accused the Army of providing second-class treatment to the Oregon's 41st Brigade returning from Iraq.
While Golden, 39, is not part of the 41st, she has been an Oregon Guard soldier for nine years, hired as a full-time Guard member to work recruiting events and later to work for the recruiting commander in Salem.
In October 2008, her crippling joint pain was diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren's syndrome, incurable autoimmune diseases. By January 2009, she couldn't work. Within months, the Salem mother of four couldn't walk or bathe herself. She began chemotherapy to control her flare-up. But she vomited so much and required so much pain medicine that her doctor suggested she try medical marijuana.
Retired Col. Ray Meyer reassured Golden that she could use marijuana because she was never going to return to duty. He had filed her separation paperwork himself months earlier. After her Oregon Health & Science University oncologist wrote a recommendation, Golden obtained a medical marijuana card on Jan. 15. Meyer registered as the official caregiver who would bring her marijuana.
"It was a legal prescription, by God," Meyer said, "and she thought she was out of the service."
A month later, Golden received active-duty orders to report to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Lewis-McChord for her medical discharge. She was one of 432 "warriors" assigned to the unit, one of 34 established after reports in 2007 detailing a lack of care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Any soldier who needs six months or more of complex medical care is assigned to one of these units and receives pay as they recover or rehabilitate. The average stay at Madigan is 280 days. About 60,000 soldiers have done this nationwide, with half returning to duty. The Warrior Training Units simplify and centralize care but also have been criticized as "warehouses of despair," according to an April investigation by The New York Times.
***Golden's problems began almost immediately. Typically, those who self-identify drug use should enter an abuse program. Instead, Army records obtained from her family show that regular urinalysis was ordered. She tested positive for weeks. Golden says she quit using marijuana when she left Oregon, but the chemical stays in the body for weeks.
On March 22, she was given an Article 15 for wrongful marijuana use and was to be punished with a reduction to private, probation and restriction to barracks.
"I was in shock about what was happening," Golden said. "In my whole military career, I had never received a negative counseling statement or an Article 15. I was also told I could be going to go to federal prison for two years. I was terrified."
Golden asked for an open court-martial instead. She also repeatedly asked to return to Oregon in a community-based transition program that's available. She said she feels she's being driven into a dishonorable discharge that would cost her her military retirement, veterans disability benefits and her family's future. Since February, she has received 22 negative counseling statements from Warrior Transition staff.
"They're creating a paper trail," she said.
On May 17, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Kurt Schrader called for an investigation into possible Army discrimination against National Guard soldiers. Later that day, Golden said she was summoned to the Lewis-McChord military police offices, frisked, fingerprinted and told she was being charged with two felonies before being abruptly sent back to her room.
No charges were filed.
Last week, her former commander, Meyer, wrote the Oregon Guard that they need to bring her home.
"They have flagged her as a 'Drug Addict'" Meyer wrote. "I am certain that her Warrior Transition Battalion Command is promoting an agenda that is outside the scope of their Mission Statement and they have let arrogance and pride override regulation and common sense."
Madigan Army Medical Center Commander Col. Jerry Penner said in an e-mail Thursday that "Spc. Golden is receiving optimum coordinated medical care" and will remain at Lewis-McChord.
"Her assignment ... based on her complex medical issues is most appropriate. ... Unfortunately, Spc. Golden is a high-risk soldier for medical reasons who requires close supervision. Her supervisors must ensure her welfare and compliance with her care plan in accordance with Army regulations."
A spokesman for the Oregon Guard says the state has confidence in Penner's Madigan staff.
"We work with them on a regular basis, and they are doing the best they can in every circumstance," said Capt. Steve Bomar. "They're continuing to work the process for her."
***Oregon is one of 14 states plus the District of Columbia that permit medical marijuana. About 39,000 patients in Oregon have approved cards. Since last fall, the Obama administration announced it would not prosecute people for possession in medical marijuana states.
Nonetheless, the Department of Defense rule remains black and white: Marijuana is forbidden for active duty and the reserve.
Since August 2007, the Oregon Guard has required soldiers and airmen to declare use of medical marijuana, disclose possession of a card and appear before an impartial medical board. The soldier is counseled on treatment options instead of marijuana, which they must either quit using or quit the Guard.
Only two other Oregon soldiers have disclosed their medical marijuana cards. One was retained after seeking alternate treatment, but the other was discharged because he got the card after he tested positive for the drug. Such cases are rare nationally. A spokesman for the California-based Americans for Safe Access, the country's largest medical marijuana organization, said he has heard of only one other soldier whose medical retirement is hung up on it.
"Can someone remain in the uniform service and use medical marijuana?" Oregon Guard spokesman Bomar said. "The answer is no."
***Richelle Golden says her disclosure has prompted Madigan medical staff to disregard her civilian doctor's diagnoses, change her medication and ignore ongoing problems.
"I'm sick," she said. "I didn't understand this would become a huge issue."
The Madigan commander defends Golden's care. In statements to The Oregonian and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., he said it was appropriate to review her previous care and prescriptions and adjust accordingly. The inspector general for the Western Regional Medical Command in May in response to Golden's complaints also concluded that Golden had access to an attorney and that care was being provided and closed her complaint.
Her distress, though, has persisted. She is isolated at the Warrior Transition Unit, a rare female soldier in a small room in the 1930s barracks where she uses a walker to get around. She has four sons, ages 15 to 24, but has seen only two of them since winter. She says she never dreamed her marijuana use would jeopardize her retirement and reputation. She cries frequently and has called a suicide hot line since February. She has posted on her Facebook page and elsewhere pleading for help. She has accused the noncommissioned officers supervising her of verbal abuse. She says the medical staff has ignored masses on her breast and on her ovary until this week when her contact with The Oregonian became known.
"I am in so much pain," she wrote last Friday, "I can hardly stand it anymore."
She worries her situation will affect her husband of two years, Tom Golden, a warrant officer with the Oregon Guard. His father, brother and sister-in-law all serve in the armed forces.
"I'm not worried about me," said Tom Golden. "It's horrible hearing from her and not being able to do anything to help."