How Medical Cannabis Changed This Veteran’s Life


Steven Achenson is an Iraq War Veteran who served on Active Duty in the Army as a Forward Observer from 2004 to the end of 2008, and deployed to Sadr City, Iraq in 2005. Steve is the Co-Founder of a group called “Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care.”

Steve’s testimony given to the Madison State Legislature on February 1st, 2017:

When I was deployed, I was involved in over 400 missions as lead driver of a combat escort team for our Brigade Commander, and drove nearly 18,000 miles through some of the most heavily bombed routes in and around the greater Baghdad area. Daily, I witnessed horrific scenes and aftermaths of suicide bombings, IED attacks, explosions, and even human stampedes. Combine those experiences with the constant state of alertness required to be lead driver of our convoy, I developed and was diagnosed with moderate to severe PTSD after returning home in 2006. To this day, I still experience daily bouts of debilitating anxiety, hypervigilance, frequent nightmares, depression, lack of sleep, disassociation, and even suicidal ideations as a result of my deployment and military experience. 

In addition to battling PTSD - an invisible wound of war - I am also still struggling with a multitude of physical disabilities connected to my service. While attempting to repair a blown-out tire on our truck, I suffered a severe injury to my back. Although I was able to complete the remainder of my deployment, I did so in excruciating pain. After returning home, I underwent the first of what would be three back surgeries spanning the better part of decade. My most recent surgery was in June of 2016, when 90% of the remaining disc material herniated, which resulted in a condition called Cauda Equina – essentially a stroke of the nerves that emanate from that vertebra. Now, I no longer have feeling in most of my right leg and groin, and have experienced a loss of certain reproductive functioning, sensations related to bowel and bladder movements, and other negative and lasting side effects. 

Since my initial surgery in 2007, I have been prescribed literally thousands of pills by Army, VA, and private doctors alike. Painkillers, Muscle Relaxers, Anti-Anxiety/Depression medication, sleeping pills, stomach medication, anti-inflammatories, and more. After each subsequent surgery, I could feel my body’s reaction to the medication – and the unquenchable thirst for more pills. However, the pain, the anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression still remained, both despite and because of being heavily medicated. 

After ending my enlistment in the Army with an Honorable Discharge at the end of 2008, I immediately attempted to use my GI Bill to go to College.  At this point in time, I was taking up to 7 different medications daily. I would equate my existence to something resembling a zombie. Pills to TRY go to sleep, pills to TRY to numb the pain, pills to TRY and relax, pills to TRY to eat, and, of course, stool softeners, because anyone who has been on opiate painkillers knows they cause constipation…It was nearly impossible to eat anything because my stomach was constantly in knots trying to process all the medications. Couple that with the symptoms of PTSD in a new environment with new people and students – none of whom had any idea of the experiences I had gone through while deployed as a 19-year old – it was nearly impossible to function as a non-traditional student with the rigors of a pre-engineering program. I was considering dropping out of college after just the first couple weeks, because the thought of trying to continue in that state of existence just seemed to be too much to overcome. 

Right about the time I was ready to give up hope, a classmate of mine invited me to join her to smoke some cannabis. Initially, the “good Soldier” in me was hesitant to participate, but I figured what else do I have to lose - I’m already nearing the end of my rope, literally and figuratively. 

Realizing immediately the positive effects of cannabis and the potential to get my life back on track, I continued self-medicating. Slowly, I was able to replace EVERY SINGLE MEDICATION I had been taking with ONE natural, safe, and most importantly, EFFECTIVE alternative to the plethora of pills. School became much less of a chore, and the hallways didn’t seem to close in on me as tightly as they once did. In the classroom, I was able to focus on the lecture instead of worrying about whether or not the kids sitting behind me were about to launch some surprise attack. At home, I was able to get back to eating regularly, my mood had drastically improved, and my sleep habits returned to somewhat of a normalcy. 

After just a couple weeks of using cannabis as an alternative to pills, I went on to start the first ever student veterans organization on campus, and it quickly grew to the largest student organization in its first semester of existence. My confidence continued to build, and I began working as a math tutor, student ambassador, and representative in our student government. In 2011, I was named Co-Student of the Year at UW-Fox Valley, and earned my Associates Degree while making the Dean’s list in every semester. I went on the transfer to UW Platteville, and in 2013 graduated with honors with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil/Structural Engineering. NONE of this would have been possible had it not been for Medicinal Cannabis. 

After graduation, my partner I started Peacefully Organic Produce, Wisconsin’s first Veteran-led Community Supported Agriculture farm right outside Madison in Waunakee. Through our farm, we were able to establish a USDA funded training program specifically for Veterans returning back to civilian life, many of whom were also dealing with PTSD, TBI, Military Sexual Trauma and other visible and invisible wounds from their military service. Like me, many of them also happened to find medicinal cannabis to be the most effective medication available to treat their ailments. 

Medicinal Cannabis allowed me to reach my full potential, cope with PTSD and the ongoing pain associated with three back surgeries. Had I continued using the recipe of painkillers, muscle relaxers, and other harmful prescriptions, I’m sure I would have become one of the 20-plus veterans a day who lose hope and take their own life.

There are many citizens in this state who are struggling with addiction, many of them are Veterans. We NEED access to an opiate alternative. I am not the only veteran to come to this realization, as I stated previously, 4 of the state’s largest Veteran Service Organizations and the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union now support a statewide medicinal cannabis program in Wisconsin. 

Veterans and residents of this state who wish to access medicinal cannabis are not criminals; we can no longer live in the shadows of society in a constant state of fear from repercussions for trying to access a safe, non-addictive, and most importantly, EFFECTIVE alternative medication! To those veterans out there listening and here today, we need you to join this fight. To those veterans and citizens struggling with addiction, know this; YOU ARE NOT ALONE.