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Doug Distasio, District of Columbia
Lt. Col. (ret.) Doug Distasio had his Air Force career upended by an aircraft accident in 2014. The host of injuries, including back, neck and head trauma, entailed a “bunch of stuff” he “wasn’t ready to deal with.”
From 2014 until his retirement from active duty in 2017, Doug’s experience was what he calls “the standard wounded warrior story – a guy who got hurt and just tried to get better.” That meant a large number of pharmaceutical drugs, psychiatric support, and physical therapy. The drug side effects proved problematic.
“We sometime understand the interaction of a few drugs but not a dozen or more.” Doug says.
When Doug was promoted to full colonel, he talked to his wife, and they decided he should decline the promotion and leave the Air Force after 21 years of service. The injuries and meds were just too much.
“I’ll forever blame the many pills for having trouble finding myself and getting better,” Doug says. “No matter what combo pills and therapy they gave me, I wasn’t going to get better.”
The transition from military pilot and commander working at the Pentagon to private sector citizen was a hard one for Doug, and the many medications left him “discombobulated.”
Some friends who had also left the military suggested cannabis to Doug as a way to ween off the opioids and other pharmaceuticals.
“I went cold turkey, which I don’t recommend,” Doug recalls. “A slow drip wasn’t going to help. I needed to take bold action, but with my wife’s help, I pulled it off
Doug used cannabis to manage his opioid withdrawal, which helped minimize his symptoms, but he says withdrawal was still very hard.
“Cannabis helped me get control of my mind again,” Doug says. “I’m feeling better.”
Doug now works for a DC consulting firm on defense issues, and since he was already working on the Hill, becoming an advocate for veterans’ access to cannabis seemed like a good fit. Still, he thought about it a lot, recognizing the challenges that come with public advocacy.
has become an advocate for other veterans.
“I couldn’t see not doing it, after it helped so much,” Doug says.
After Doug retired in the summer of 2017, he started talking to Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL who had founded the Veterans Cannabis Project, an advocacy group for service members in 2015. When Nick asked Doug for his help, Doug agreed. The group is still small but is involved in a number of state campaigns. Doug became the group’s executive director in 2019.
“In Virginia, we did a mission where we took three or four vets to the state capitol and had a discussion with lawmakers about why we’re doing this, what vets need,” Doug says. We reached 20,000 advocates in just a few months there, organizing petitions and other ways to show direct support to state lawmakers.”
This year, their focus is on Florida, where they are helping fight the caps on THC content.
“We’re trying to perform some sort of subject matter expert role.” Doug says. “Caps don’t do what you think they do. Education is our goal.”
They also had a campaign early this year in Massachusetts on why dispensaries should be classified as essential businesses. They ran some ads, and state officials changed course.
The group has been focused on “targets of opportunity,” but Doug recognizes that federal prohibition is “wiping out progress, no matter what you do on the state level.”
“The obstinacy of those in charge is shocking,” Doug says, noting that 90% of the public agree veterans should have safe access to cannabis for medicinal use, and support among veterans was 92% in an American Legion poll. “Cannabis is not a panacea or cure all, but if it can take you down a few pills, it’s worth it.”
Veterans are central to cannabis advocacy in Doug’s view, who reminds people that we lose 22 veterans a day because of pain and lack of hope and friendship, all of which he sees cannabis as naturally addressing. His strategy is “direct action missions.”
“As vets it’s our responsibility to explain this to people who’ve dug in their heels,” Doug says. “When we get to a congressman or senator we can give them that personal story, make it not so obscure.”
But that does not mean he and his team meet no resistance.
“The hardest piece is feeling like you’re being judged, that they think you’re doing something that has no medical benefit because it’s Schedule I,” says Doug. “’You just want to get high’—If I hear that again, I’m going to strangle someone. I’m functional or not functional.”
The frustration helps drive Doug’s advocacy. As much as he senses people looking at him as someone on the fringe, he knows that statistics just don’t say that. He also has the support of his family, more so all the time.
“There is an obvious correlation between cannabis and how I’m feeling,” Doug says. “I can see the benefit, and my family and everyone around can see it.”
Bringing the military spouses in to testify to that is the next step Doug sees in bringing comprehensive change for veterans who use cannabis to heal.
“We shouldn’t have to forgo government employment, security clearance, or a bunch of things that are just not germane,” Doug says
This profile was originally published in the October 2020 ASA Activist Newsletter
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