Sean Azzariti is an Iraq War veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was also the first person in the country to buy legalized marijuana when sales began in Denver earlier this year. But Azzariti doesn't use marijuana for recreational purposes; he uses it to treat his PTSD. Azzariti says he would like to be able to go through Colorado's medical marijuana program, but the state doesn't consider PTSD a qualifying ailment for the drug.
I spoke with Azzariti about his activism and support for medical marijuana. The interview below is edited for length and clarity.
German Lopez: How did you get started with medical marijuana?
Sean Azzariti: I served in the Marine Corps for six years, from 2000 to 2006. Shortly after I exited the military, I was diagnosed with severe PTSD. That's when I started to get prescribed to these ridiculously obscene cocktails of prescription drugs. At one point, I was prescribed to take 6 milligrams of Xanax a day, 4 milligrams of Clonazepam a day, 30 to 50 milligrams of Adderrall a day to counterbalance the effects of the first two drugs, and then a drug called Trazodone to help me sleep.
When I started taking those drugs, it made me into a complete shell of the person that I am. I was nonfunctional, suicidal, angry. They were making my situation much worse.
That's when I started to research cannabis and how it's been beneficial to others with PTSD. Unfortunately, there's no official research because it's a schedule 1 drug. So I looked into the anecdotal evidence from other veterans and other people with PTSD, and it seemed promising.
I actually applied to get my medical marijuana card in 2008 in the state of Colorado, not knowing that PTSD wasn't a qualifying ailment. I was actually denied my medical marijuana card the first time I applied. Subsequently, I got it for chronic nausea. But me being denied is what really set me on a course of advocacy in the state.
Cannabis saved my life. It made it so I didn't have to take all those pills. It made me into a functional human being. Yet a lot of veterans would look at cannabis not being a qualifying ailment in the state, and that would be the end of their journeys with cannabis. But it can help them.
GL: Since a few medical conditions are left out in Colorado, some people are forced to buy recreational instead of medical marijuana to essentially self-treat. What do you make of that? Do you think that's fair?
SA: I think it's a shame. I just recently worked on a House bill here in the state to have PTSD added to the list of qualifying ailments. One of the biggest arguments that the opponents had to this bill was, "Well, hey, we just made recreational cannabis legal in the state. Any veteran can go get it now."
That's not true. We have veterans who are coming back from war who are not 21 years old, so they're not old enough to buy recreational. We also have veterans who live in areas of the state that don't allow recreational cannabis sales; they only have the medical marijuana option.
The biggest issue that I have with this is people should be able to have open communication with their doctors and say, "Look, this is something that's helping me. What do you think about this?" Instead, veterans have to skirt around it and not tell their doctors, because it's not a qualifying ailment and veterans are scared they'll lose their benefits if they break the law. It's just not okay.
GL: What about the price? Is it a lot more expensive to buy recreational over medical marijuana?
SA: Absolutely. Not only is it more expensive, but the quality isn't nearly half as what it is on the medical side. Most of the medical shops out here will do potency and residual testing, but they're not required to do that yet for recreational stores. So the quality on the recreational side is through the floor.
On top of that, you're getting taxed for recreational cannabis. You're paying almost double of what you would for medical marijuana.
GL: I know the science on this is very limited. But could you explain some of the positive effects marijuana has for you personally?
SA: If my PTSD is acting up, I can smoke a little bit of cannabis. It will calm me down, and it will slow my heart rate down. My mind will usually start racing when my symptoms act up, and cannabis allows my thoughts to slow down so I can process them.
It also makes it so I don't have to take 12 or 13 pills a day. That alone does wonders for everything throughout my day. It makes it so I'm not walking around in a haze, like a zombie. I also don't have mood swings like I did on pills. With cannabis, I'm just me.
GL: One of the issues with marijuana is it has so many active chemicals, so it's hard to know how it will affect different people. Is that something that concerns you even as you advocate for the drug?
SA: Absolutely. That goes back to why we need to be able to do research on this.
When I first started looking into how cannabis can help me, I found there's a lot of strains out there that make my symptoms worse. I really have to stay away from the sativa type strains. If I smoke those, it's bad news. I get racy and my anxiety goes up.
It's definitely something we need more research on. There's different molecules, compounds, and chemicals in the plant that could affect people differently, and we need to understand those.
GL: Do you think there's a stigma toward researching marijuana?
"It's definitely something we need more research on"
SA: There is a stigma. When I was working on that House bill, the doctors who were opposing it treated it as if it's not legitimate.
That's why I'm talking to people like you. I'm telling them that this is something that's helping people, and we need to really get this moving forward. We need to get this research going, so we can get people help.
GL: What kind of response did you get from veterans and other people you were associated with in the military once you began advocating?
SA: It was overwhelmingly positive. I can't tell you how many veterans or brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers of veterans have reached out to me and said, "Thank you for stepping up. This is something that's saved my life or the life of somebody I know. What can I do to legalize this in the state that I'm in?"
I've received almost no negative feedback from veterans or people in veterans organizations. I think most people get it that this is something that's saving our vets.
GL: Given that kind of positive response and public support for medical marijuana, why do you think it's taking so long for medical marijuana to take off?
SA: Right now, the big issue is that cannabis is a schedule 1 drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a monopoly on the supply of cannabis. That's holding up the research. Dr. Sue Sisley in Arizona was approved to conduct cannabis-related research with 70 veterans with PTSD. They've been waiting from NIDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration to get their cannabis.
It's something that we have to fix. We have drugs, like ecstasy, that we're doing research on because it's not a schedule 1 drug. But marijuana is, so the process is hard. That's the biggest hold-up right now.