By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Because he served in the U.S. Army in South Vietnam during 1968 and '69, during a period of heavy spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, Uncle Sam pays his medical bills. After going into remission, the cancer returned six months ago, so he remains on hormone therapy and radiation treatment. He also smokes marijuana to treat his chronic pain and get a good night's sleep. "I'm really glad Marty's doing this because it helps a lot of people that have no money," he says. "I don't have the means to cultivate. Where I live, it'd be stolen. So this is my outlet to get my pot. I'll smoke a joint in the evening, and I'm done. I'm happy."
Another veteran among Patient Med-Aid's ranks is Kevin Butcher, who joined the U.S. Army when he turned 18 and served in the Persian Gulf War as an explosives specialist with the 82nd Airborne Division. He didn't see combat, but he witnessed its immediate aftermath as a truck driver in a convoy about 4,000 meters behind the lead tanks that invaded Iraq from Saudi Arabia. He says he'll never forget what he saw in those few days.
"I was told to follow the tracks in front of me," Butcher recalls. At times, he could barely see the truck ahead of him because of the smoke from burning oil wells. "They told us it was like smoking two packs of cigarettes because of all the smoke in the air, and oil was actually splattering on my windshield." Then there was the carnage of Saddam Hussein's vanquished Iraqi Republican Guard. "There were hundreds of burning tanks, burning bodies, death everywhere,'" he says. "It was open desert, the middle of nowhere, blowing everything up in front of us. Whatever they destroyed, we'd see. That's basically what gave me PTSD."
After leaving the Army in 1992—Butcher says he was kicked out for smoking pot—he found construction work in Arizona, where he grew up. Over the years, he grew increasingly embittered about his time in the military. He wasn't aware of his mounting depression, but his wife was. When the U.S. invaded Iraq again in 2003, Butcher says, he sank deeper into an emotional black hole. It didn't help that a decade laying floor tiles had given him chronic back pain. "I was hurting every day," he says. "I couldn't work anymore.
Following a battery of tests, Butcher says, the Veteran's Administration diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2006, saying he was 70 percent disabled because of his experience in the war. For his back injuries, the VA prescribed powerful opiates such as Loratab and hydrocodone, to which he swiftly became addicted. He attempted suicide twice before realizing he didn't want to die and didn't want to keep taking the painkillers.
Instead, Butcher smokes marijuana, which he credits with saving his life. "It helps me with my chronic pain that I have every day and the depression and got me off the pain medication," he says. "I haven't told the VA because I'm worried what will happen to my disability, but the next time I go in, if it comes up, I'll tell them."
Of all the Patient Med-Aid members I interviewed, Charlie Parra seemed the least worried about having his name used for the story. "It wouldn't make much difference," he says. "I'm dying. I have stage-four cancer. It's in my lungs, my bones; it's already metastasized."
The 67-year-old Pico Rivera resident is missing his hair; speaks in a soft, weak voice; and has to be rolled around in a wheelchair by his son, who sat quietly during the interview. Three years ago, doctors diagnosed Parra with pancreatic cancer. He'd been suffering from back pain for months, but he didn't want to miss work to get it checked out. By the time he finally did visit a doctor, he was told he would be dead by the end of the year.
"And here I am," Parra says. "I'd like to go back and kick that doctor's ass today if I had enough energy, but I don't." Thanks to chemotherapy, Parra is still alive, but it's clear he's in tremendous pain and doesn't expect to live much longer. He says his doctor recommended medical marijuana to help him eat because the chemotherapy and pain pills had destroyed his appetite and sense of taste. At a pot club in Santa Fe Springs, he saw a flier advertising free marijuana for cancer patients, which is how he met Modiano.
"Weed is not for everybody," Parra says. "I don't think all these kids should be getting scrips. It's outrageous. But they should let the sick people have medical marijuana. If I can't get it here, I'll get it from somewhere. I don't know how much time I have left. I just want to live a little more comfortably. I don't know how much more time Marty has, either, because he's pretty sick, too. But who knows? Maybe somebody else can [stand] up behind him and keep it going."
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As with the life expectancies of Parra and Modiano, the future of Patient Med-Aid is tenuous to say the least. At the top of the list of potential concerns is the question of further law-enforcement action, either by local police, county sheriffs or federal drug agents. But Christopher Glew, a defense attorney who regularly works with marijuana dispensaries throughout California (and is an online columnist for the Weekly), says that Patient Med-Aid is probably the last club the state of California or DEA would intentionally target.