"He still sees them, more than three decades after the horrific crash wiped out 18 of his military brothers. He climbed all through the foggy night to find their battered bodies, still seated in the ripped-open hull of the cargo plane that they’d been ready to parachute from minutes before it slammed into a mountain in Spain.
CLICK HERE: U.S. Air Force veteran Don Karpowich shares how marijuana helps him cope with the symptoms of PTSD that plague him decades after he watched a planeload of comrades slam into a Spanish mountainside. He’s been an outspoken advocate for a bill, now sitting on Governor Christie’s desk, that would allow those with PTSD to legally obtain marijuana in New Jersey
It had been a training mission, and Sgt. Don Karpowich’s job that day in February 1984 was to guide the plane in, tell the men when to jump. He did exactly that, but for some reason the pilot took another pass.
That’s when they crashed.
He wasn’t at fault, but he can’t help but wonder if he could have done anything differently.
It haunted him then. It haunts him still.
And the only thing that gives him a measure of relief, he says, is marijuana.
He and other veterans like him who suffer from what’s called post-traumatic stress disorder insist that the drug helps them and they should be allowed to use it legally. And while the science behind it is not clear, their argument was strong enough for both houses of the state Legislature to overwhelmingly approve a bill adding PTSD to the list of maladies that fall under the state’s medical marijuana law. The measure now sits on Governor Christie’s desk, where it awaits his signature or veto.
Karpowich offers his story as a compelling case in support of the law.
He didn’t see a therapist after the crash. Instead he went back to work, jumping out of airplanes and guiding missions for an elite group of U.S. Air Force airmen known as “combat controllers” for the next nine years.
Don Karpowich displays a photo of himself from the early 1980's, taken in Germany when he was a Senior Airman.
At first, he found his therapy in a bottle. He went to bars and picked fights. He later leaned on cocaine and painkillers for his physical injuries from years of parachute jumps. Those drugs masked his emotional pain but couldn’t heal it.
In 2009, his wife gave him an ultimatum — get help or get out.
He got help; help from her, from counseling and from smoking marijuana.
The 57-year-old veteran now runs a dog-walking business in his hometown, Morristown. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t take pain pills. He doesn’t go to bars and pick fights.
When symptoms of his PTSD arise, they come with a myriad of thoughts, inputs and reactions that flood his brain. He becomes hypersensitive, his reactions uncontrollable.
“My brain fires off in all of these different directions,” he said. “I can’t keep my head in one spot.”
Marijuana quiets the noise.
“It puts all that down. My head’s not shooting all over the place,” Karpowich said. “It slows me down, helps me focus on what I do in the moment.”
But using marijuana as he does also puts him in legal danger in New Jersey because he’s not one of the thousands whose conditions allow them to use medical marijuana here.
So, Karpowich has also become an outspoken advocate for his cause. He testified in Trenton in June, sharing his story and pleading with legislators to pass a bill that would make PTSD a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in New Jersey, just like glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, severe or chronic pain and terminal illness.
“My brain fires off in all of these different directions,” Karpowich said of when PTSD strikes. “I can’t keep my head in one spot.” Marijuana quiets the noise, he says.
But the fate of the bill is far from certain. Christie has historically been a critic of expanding medical marijuana. And, as a former federal prosecutor, he’s been a vocal opponent of legalizing its recreational use.
As written, the measure would require that, in order for PTSD sufferers to join the more than 6,500 patients now qualified to receive medical marijuana in New Jersey, they would first have to be deemed by a physician to have been “resistant to conventional medical therapy, which generally combines psychotherapy with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.”
Though PTSD is commonly associated with military veterans who’ve experienced combat, the bill lists other traumatic incidents that can trigger the condition – physical or sexual assault, childhood neglect or physical abuse, a natural disaster or other life-threatening events.
Residents in more than half of the states that have established medical marijuana programs can obtain the drug if they have been diagnosed with PTSD, a Record analysis of state marijuana laws shows.
Christie has had an arm’s-length relationship with the state’s medical marijuana program. It became law in 2010, shortly before he took office, one of the last acts of his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine. And critics blamed Christie for a more than two-year delay in opening medical marijuana dispensaries after the law passed.
Christie’s spokesman Brian Murray declined to discuss how his boss would react to the new bill, saying that the administration’s policy is not to discuss legislation until the governor has had “ample time to review it.”
The governor’s stance on marijuana may be bolstered by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s denial this week of requests to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, which would open it up to further medical research and lessen some potential criminal penalties. In its current federal classification, marijuana sits alongside heroin, Ecstasy, peyote and LSD.
At the same time, though, research will expand, as the DEA is set to allow universities other than the University of Mississippi to produce marijuana for research. The University of Mississippi has been the only facility federally-authorized to grow the plant for research purposes. Critics have claimed that the stranglehold on production has limited research opportunities.
Scientists in Colorado, where marijuana is legal for recreational use, were granted approval by the DEA in April to move forward with a study. It is scheduled to begin this month after years of application hurdles.
Funded through a $2.15 million state grant, the Colorado study will measure the efficacy of five different potencies of smoked or vaporized marijuana among 76 military veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD against a placebo treatment.
Arguments about the rationale behind making marijuana available to PTSD sufferers echoed in New Jersey.
State Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Maywood, is a co-sponsor of the new bill. A chiropractor, he said he’s seen patients — among them veterans of recent wars — who are not able to get pain relief or psychological relief from traditional methods such as painkillers or antidepressants.
“I honestly think [PTSD] should have been on the list to begin with,” Eustace said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest, was one of the nine “no” votes in the 28-9 passage of bill in the state Senate this month. The bill passed in the Assembly 56-13 in June. The “no” votes in both houses were primarily Republican legislators. Only two Democratic senators voted against the measure.
Cardinale, a dentist who can prescribe medications to his patients, said he is not opposed to the use of the drug but questions whether there is enough research on its effectiveness. Also, he worries that the current bill is “too loose” and could allow for unscrupulous doctors to prescribe the drug to patients when it’s not necessary.
“I don’t believe that there is any valid exercise that has indicated that marijuana, in and of itself, has any medicinal qualities,” Cardinale said. “It is just something that makes you high.”
“Anything that you take for the purpose of getting high is not a good thing in my view,” Cardinale said.
Cardinale said that he doesn’t believe comparisons to alcohol use are accurate because many people can and do consume alcohol without getting intoxicated, but he isn’t aware of someone using marijuana without getting high.
The bill had other opponents.
“What is the scientific evidence for medical marijuana being an effective treatment?” said Joseph Napoli, past president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association during testimony on the bill. “We have very sparse evidence.”
Napoli cautioned that without solid research, allowing people with PTSD to use medical marijuana could endanger them further, especially if they already have substance abuse problems.
But one of the reasons there is little evidence, advocates for medical marijuana said, is that federal agencies until very recently have not allowed researchers to study marijuana in a clinical setting.
“This is an issue of compassion,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. Veterans don’t have time to wait around for trials. They don’t have time for us to accumulate three or four or five years of science.”
Alongside Karpowich at the June legislative hearing, fellow veteran Leo Bridgewater Sr. of Trenton testified about how marijuana had helped him with his PTSD.
Bridgewater is already qualified to use marijuana in New Jersey to treat severe pain he suffers from damage to his knees from parachute jumps in the U.S. Army. But he knows the relief it brings to veterans like Karpowich and says it should be available to anyone who needs it.
He deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan before leaving the military to work as a civilian contractor, returning four more times to Iraq.
The 41-year-old Trenton native said after being prescribed painkillers for knee and back injuries he sustained while doing military parachute jumps, he turned to marijuana for relief.
Marijuana helped his pain without the side effects of the prescription drugs, but for the first time he noticed both that he was sleeping better and a decrease in the nightmares related to being bombed, mortared and shot at in Iraq that had plagued him for years.
He couldn’t get the drug from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, so he began carrying marijuana seeds back from Amsterdam to his home in Georgia at the time, growing plants indoors to self-medicate.
When he moved back to New Jersey following the death of his mother and father two years ago, he applied for and was granted a medical-marijuana card for his physical injuries.
“I’m lucky because I also have some knee pain. Because of that is why I’m enrolled in the program,” Bridgewater testified in June.
He told the legislators that over the previous year, two veterans he served with committed suicide. A third attempted but was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Karpowich said that in recent years, he has reconnected with family members of the men who died in the plane crash, revealing details to them that they couldn’t get from the government. He’s traveled to the West Coast to visit graves and met with fellow veterans to honor the memories of the 18 men who died that day.
He said he is fighting for marijuana as a treatment for PTSD on principle — for himself and for his fellow veterans.
Though he still wants to see medical marijuana available for people in New Jersey, Karpowich said Wednesday that he’s now thinking of moving to Colorado later this year, where the drug is available regardless of medical condition, is more affordable and of higher quality than in New Jersey.
Marijuana isn’t a panacea, and it’s not for every veteran, Karpowich said. He also credits his family support and counseling for helping pull him back from the edge.
But after seeing more and more PTSD-plagued veterans commit suicide he just thinks marijuana should be an option for those who could benefit from it.
“Pass this, for not just me but for every brother who is killing themselves,” he told legislators.