Steve Ellmore, founder of The Unprescribed nonprofit, is a 20-year Air Force veteran. Here, Ellmore shares how his personal experience led him to become a medical cannabis patient and how his award-winning 2020 film, Unprescribed, documents the stories of veterans, cannabis advocacy, and the fight to end veteran suicide.
Content warning: This story contains references to suicide. If you or a loved one need assistance, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7 or visit 988lifeline.org
Steve Ellmore, founder of The Unprescribed nonprofit, is a 20-year Air Force veteran and currently works in the public sector helping veterans and their families. An anxiety sufferer, Ellmore also attempted suicide while on active duty, and has experienced traumas such as multiple car accidents, traumatic brain injury, and domestic abuse in addition to being in the military. Cannabis, Ellmore believes, can be the answer for veterans seeking alternative treatments to the opioids and other dangerous medications prescribed to them to treat their mental and physical trauma. These medications have contributed greatly to an epidemic of veteran suicide in the United States. Ellmore’s journey as a medical cannabis patient and advocate began with his award-winning 2020 film, Unprescribed, which documents the stories of veterans, cannabis advocacy, and the fight to end veteran suicide. “In their own words,” Ellmore said, “this film is the voice of veterans everywhere. We are asking for cannabis.” Ellmore’s mission is to share the stories of those who, like him, have found healing with cannabis and plant-based medicine.
A filmmaker and photographer by trade, Steve Ellmore accepted an offer in 2017 to film a documentary about a veteran-operated cannabis growing operation in the Midwest. While in the military and as a veteran, Ellmore had been presented with a negative image of cannabis. “You get into the military and you're told that it’s the devil's weed. It's a career killer. It's everything bad,” Ellmore recalled. Despite this, Ellmore decided to begin the project with an open mind and began to learn how veterans were using cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though that documentary project did not come to fruition in the end, a new seed had been planted in Ellmore’s mind: was there more to explore with cannabis as medicine?
“The veterans with the grow had convinced me that cannabis was the answer—that cannabis could have prevented me from attempting to take my life,” he said. “So, I set out to find the real answers and talk to veterans.”
After speaking with the American Legion, Ellmore was directed to the people who would eventually be featured in his new film through a “right place, right time” sequence of events. He spoke with researcher Dr. Sue Sisley, veterans Boone Cutler and Joshua Frey, advocate Janine Lutz, Scheril Murray Powell, Esq., and dispensary owner Hope Wiseman. The result was a polyphonic story of the state of medical cannabis, veterans, advocates, and the decades-long struggle to access safe, plant-based medicine. “It pulled together a bona fide story of truth in cannabis,” said Ellmore. “And we discovered in the story that we've just been lied to. My idea behind the film was to make it an advocacy piece to get the American public to change their minds, to get them to convince the lawmakers to change the laws, to legalize cannabis. I use the film to say that this is the voice of the veterans, and we're all telling you that we're suffering and the drugs being giving us by the Veterans Affairs [VA] are killing us.”
It took Steve Ellmore three years to make Unprescribed and it was entirely self-funded, self-edited, and self-produced. “The Congressional Cannabis Caucus invited me to actually screen the film on Capitol Hill at the Congressional Auditorium,” said Ellmore. “I got the audience that I wanted. And then COVID hit.”
Devastated at this setback when success had been within reach, he shelved the project. “With the anxiety, PTSD, and other things, it shut me down. That was almost my next suicide attempt. I was done. I dissolved my LLC,” said Ellmore.
Further into the pandemic, he eventually decided to put the film on Amazon Prime Video, and after word spread it started to get the attention Ellmore had hoped for. “That's what drove me back again. Fast forward, we got the nonprofit up and running.”
The goal of the nonprofit, called The Unprescribed, is education, influence, and to amplify the voices and stories in the Unprescribed film to save more lives. “The unprescribed are the people who found healing through natural means and got off of the pharmaceuticals,” Ellmore explained. After releasing the film, Ellmore met and joined forces with AMVETS Chief Medical Executive, Cherissa Jackson. Through the nonprofit and with the support and collaboration of Jackson, The Unprescribed holds film screenings and panels across the country, posting videos of these discussions on YouTube to help increase awareness.
The driving force behind the foundation is the idea that the more screenings of the film, the more lives touched, but this kind of goal comes with its own inherent challenges to overcome. “We’re trying to raise money so that we can buy advertising to promote the film so that we can have more engagements where we can actually be out there,” said Ellmore. “We're looking for support and sponsorships to help keep us on the air, keep us in the public mind, and help me get out there to do more engagements. Veterans don't like asking for help. We want to do it by ourselves, otherwise we're seen as weak. And the same thing goes with the fundraising. I don't like asking for dollars. But I know I have to.”
With the help of funding from the nonprofit, the panels of doctors, advocates, and veterans share more of their story and engage with the audience in Q&A sessions. “The best format for presenting the film is as a conversation piece with audiences because that opens up the minds of the audience and public, so that it’s not just about seeing the film, but actually bouncing off your thoughts with professionals,” Ellmore explained.
The screenings and discussions engage the audience in topics such as legalization of cannabis, holistic medicine, facing stigma and trauma, and veteran access to medical treatment. They create a safe place for sharing struggles and a starting point for difficult conversations. As described in the film, physical and mental trauma involves prescriptions with disastrous side effects: veterans are dying by suicide at the rate of 22 per day.
“These heroes are returning, and many veterans are coming back broken, and they're taking their lives because they don't see any solution in it,” said Ellmore. “I'm trying to inspire other people who have been through that trauma to tell their stories and show how cannabis helped them find balance. The whole point was we all have to overcome, though it's so easy to give up.”
Despite challenges and a massive mission, responses from veterans are an indicator that the message is reaching the hearts of those who need it most. “I continue to get screenshots from Boone of messages on social media of comments such as, ‘dude, you saved my life. I was about to take my life or do more drugs or do something else, and then I saw your thing about cannabis, and it changed me, and it changed my life.’ And that's why I’m still here, and I am here for a reason. I told myself that my mission is to be a suicide prevention and plant medicine healing advocate. That’s what I'm doing here today. And I'm just trying to be heard,” said Ellmore.
Unprescribed gives a “boots on the ground” picture of the struggles veterans have faced and continue to face in treating mental and physical injuries, especially with medical cannabis. Some change has happened since filming began, but much more still needs to be done. Moving beyond the opioid crisis involves rethinking the broader approach to treatment at its core and the impetus behind traditional pharmaceuticals.
The struggle for adequate treatment became most prominent with the opioid epidemic and the overprescribing of opioids. “I was in the middle of interviewing Josh [Frey] when the VA finally figured out the opioid crisis problem,” said Ellmore. “And what did they do? Knee jerk reaction. They took all the drugs away. Now you got people becoming heroin addicts, and now we're looking at fentanyl and all these other drugs on the streets that veterans are dealing with. Then the VA said, ‘We got to come back. We got to do something right.’ So, they finally started introducing holistic medicine.”
The challenge, as always, is to get the message out and heard by the right people. “If I could ever sit down with the secretary of the VA and show him Unprescribed,” Ellmore said, “I would acknowledge that, following the opioid epidemic, you realized you made a mistake and took the drugs away. You're making the right path with introducing integrative medicine, but you're missing one key factor, and that's the endocannabinoid system. You can't have a full, complete holistic circle if you don't include all the pieces, because you're only as strong as the weakest chain and you're missing that link. I do believe that cannabis is the missing link in the holistic healing that they're now providing for veterans.”
Progress has been slow yet positive. “I've seen policy in the VA change from no tolerance of cannabis use to some tolerance,” he said. “The film is called Unprescribed because you cannot be prescribed cannabis, it can only be recommended by your doctor. Though the VA still can't recommend it, veterans can actually talk about it now without the risk of losing their benefits. That was the number one concern of veterans, but they can engage with their VA doctors about it now.”
Ellmore’s journey into learning more about veteran treatment options has also taken him beyond the nation’s borders to learn how countries such as Canada incorporate cannabis and holistic medicine into treatment with their veterans. “With my nonprofit, The Unprescribed, we're not looking at just cannabis, we're looking at psilocybin and other plant medicines that can give you that whole plant medicine. Integrative medicine is our final approach,” he explained. “Canada is doing that, and I’m advocating to actually have the US follow that rule.”
After filming Unprescribed, Ellmore was invited by Fabian Henry, a veteran, advocate, and mentor to Ellmore, to document veterans and integrative medicine in Canada. “He drove me to advocate for the four pillars of healing that he talks about and encouraged me to make another film called Prescribed to document what they're doing up there.”
Prescribed provides a counterpoint to the stories in Unprescribed and follows the stories of veteran groups providing each other support and healing. One major difference between the two films is that veterans in Canada can be prescribed cannabis. “I want the US to use Canada as the playbook in their example,” Ellmore explained. “My end goal is that I want to see the VA actually prescribe cannabis to veterans for PTSD. That's the ultimate goal because that's exactly what they're doing in Canada.”
With the tagline for The Unprescribed nonprofit being “Plants Over Pills,” Ellmore looks forward to and visualizes harmonized medicine. “There are wonderful things about pharmaceuticals,” said Ellmore. “But as you've seen in the opioid crisis, there are so many terrible things in the pharmaceutical realm, and I'm biased on where I see them going with it. I'd love to advocate for them to be more supportive of cannabis, but what's that going to do? It's going to take away from all the growers and all the other people in the whole distribution chain and down to the patients. I'm a little scared about where the pharmaceutical companies fall into place.”
While pharmaceuticals have caused damage in the past and present, Ellmore doesn’t completely exclude the role of government regulation in medications for patient treatments. “I would like to see an equilibrium. I'd like to find a harmony where pharmaceutical companies can participate, perhaps in the cultivation, processing, or distribution, partnering with apothecaries and dispensaries or even making it a hybrid industry of canna-pharma culture,” he said. “From a patient point of view, I do want to see regulation. I would like to see the US Food and Drug Administration [FDA] get involved in cannabis. It would help keep it regulated, and I do believe they do right.”
As the idea of choosing plant-based and holistic treatment over pills takes root, the challenge for adequate research on treatment grows too. Conducting research that could illustrate the positive effects of cannabis is difficult, as exemplified with Dr. Sue Sisley, who is mentioned in Unprescribed as the principal investigator for the only FDA-approved study looking into cannabis for treating veterans with combat-related PTSD. Frustrated by roadblocks to her research, Dr. Sisley filed a lawsuit against the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2019 for restrictions on the cannabis it allows for official research. “Because it's so tied to DEA and Big Pharma,” Ellmore explained, “the government sees research as a threat and the only studies being approved are the ones that focus on the dangers. If you want to get a study that tells you about all the bad, they'll almost give you the grants and the money to do it. But if you're trying to study the efficacy or the positive sides of it, they're going to stonewall you. Dr. Sisley was persistent enough to continue to fight, fight, fight, fight. To do everything they said, no matter how ludicrous it was. But she got it done.”
The mission of The Unprescribed is still primarily rooted in plant medicine, so above all else Ellmore promotes the use of plant medicine in its natural state. “We’re also seeing a lot of companies doing research so that they can make the synthetics,” he said. “To me, that defeats the whole purpose of the plant over pills. Why are you going to synthesize something that comes out of the Earth?”
Furthermore, using cannabis to treat physical and mental injuries can be complicated, especially without access to a medical provider’s guidance that comes with taking a prescribed pharmaceutical drug. In his own journey as a patient, Ellmore has learned about the importance of understanding how to address and balance the deficiencies our bodies may have. “Learn about the endocannabinoid system and how our bodies actually are connected to the plants,” he explained. “We all have deficiencies, and it's important to understand that we're missing something.”
As one example of how to do this, Ellmore explained how DNA testing kits from Cherissa Jackson’s company We Decode helped him gain new insights into how cannabis can work well on a molecular level. “It basically shows genetic indicators of traits you might have, from PTSD to alcoholism and a dozen others. Knowing these indicators allows me to better take care of my needs. It opened up my mind," he said. “It's supposed to measure your metabolism and digestion so you can find out which strains and terpenes work best for you and how you metabolize them. You could see, for example, if edibles are even good or if you should get tinctures or whatnot.”
As cannabis legalization continues across the country, how does integrative medicine find its place? As many cannabis advocates experience, there are obstacles to overcome before making progress in changes like this.
Throughout his mission to reach veterans struggling with finding effective treatment, Ellmore runs up against decades of damage done by the War on Drugs. He and others with his nonprofit face an uphill battle to undo the stigma that still clings to cannabis today. “We're not everything that the D.A.R.E. program and the 1970s drug acts told us we were,” he said. “That was all propaganda, and that's why we need to change the public's mind about cannabis, and show them how they’ve been lied to. It was a way of controlling people, and it's time to change that. We need to fight that propaganda and stigma and realize this is an unjust war on drugs.”
The stigma and other obstacles to cannabis legalization adds more to the struggle veterans and other patients already face in their need to access medication. “We're asking to get off of the pharmaceuticals,” Ellmore explained. “The best way forward to end that stigmatization is for the VA to recognize it. They were the same way with chiropractics, yoga, and holistic healing, and they've embraced those.”
Building on the mission with his films, plus the work his foundation does promoting alternatives to damaging pharmaceuticals, this added layer of advocacy work is to change perspectives and preconceived notions. "I speak to cannabis as the plant of manna from heaven, and that's my philosophy. That's how we're changing the misconceptions and the bias, by showing that we're not drug addicts,” he said.
Starting in 1996 with California becoming the first US state to legalize cannabis for medical use, cannabis legalization continued state by state for years, up to present day. Full legalization at the federal level seems inevitable. “I've been watching the numbers go up on how many states are legalized and how many aren't,” said Ellmore. “I keep asking myself when it gets close to 50, how is the federal government going to deny the people?”
However, with each new state that legalizes cannabis for recreational use, the protections and access needed by patients becomes threatened with focus shifted to recreational markets and buyers. “I'm still paying attention to advocacy here in Maryland and watching the new legalization,” explained Ellmore. “I'm worried about adult recreational use. If we go to adult use, are we going to lose focus on the medical aspect of it? Are we going to get lab-tested, quality cannabis and availability? If we let medical cannabis go the wayside, then the image will shift to people who just want to get high, and then we're back to the stigma that we've been fighting to break the whole time.”
As Ellmore reaches more veterans with his films, his advocacy continues to evolve into new forms, including a podcast and possible docu-series to connect with more people and explore how their stories resonate with others. With support from his nonprofit, Ellmore drafted up an idea for a docu-series of individuals or organizations with specific stories of overcoming trauma, and how natural medicines played a part in their healing. During this time, a friend of Cherissa Jackson started a woman-owned black podcast network called Alive Podcast Network and invited Ellmore to air his show on the networks and app.
“My new series is called The UP! LIFE, with Cherissa Jackson as co-host,” said Ellmore. “By bringing it into this channel, it actually helped me focus my attention more on the black community, and those who are experiencing adversity and roadblocks into healing or success. Now we're doing stories that are black centric and talking about the Last Prisoner Project, for example.”
The Last Prisoner Project was founded in 2019 with the goal of freeing and supporting people incarcerated for cannabis offenses in the US. As one example, Ellmore described the experience of Purple Heart recipient and PTSD patient Sean Worsley, who was sentenced to five years in prison for medical cannabis possession and released in 2020.
“Trauma is trauma,” Ellmore said. “I am trying bridge the gap between the civilian and military to say that it doesn't matter if your trauma comes from abuse or from the battlefield, together we all need to overcome it. That's the inspiration of each of these stories, which are what I call a hero's journey.”
Ellmore shared that a hero's journey is a story of someone leaving home, encountering a great trauma along the way and overcoming it, but also being changed by the experience, and returning home as a different person.
Having already made an impact in the veteran community, Ellmore looks to reach civilians and get their support in return. “We're trying to open up the civilian community to hear our stories, to reach the rest of the 99% of the population to hear our plight. I'm trying to make a bridge so that we can all fight with the federal government to legalize cannabis,” he said. “It doesn't matter if cannabis is legal in your state, as long as there are federal prohibitions, then there are still people going to jail for it—even to this day. There are still cannabis refugees seeking their medicine in states where it’s legal. Cannabis has been demonized because of control, and it's time that people take it back.”
One part of becoming an advocate means educating yourself on understanding the misinformation and also learning about what cannabis actually can do. “Do your homework and don’t listen to the lies,” Ellmore said. “Study up on it. My advice is to understand what our bodies need, that it really is a medicine, and it is saving lives, young and old.”
More specifically, civilians can show their support and help advocate for veterans. As Cherissa Jackson said in an opening introduction to a 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Unprescribed film screening (1), “Everyone says, ‘thank you for your service,’ because that’s what you think you’re supposed to say when you see a veteran. I encourage you to instead ask us, ‘what can I do, how can I help, how can I serve you?’ And I think a veteran will love for you to say that, as a civilian. That’s the way that we really know that you’re concerned about us.”
“My personal plea is show me that this film means something by watching it and getting people to watch it,” Ellmore said. “Any funds will help us buy advertising that we need to get that message out there. Then I can get more texts from Boone showing that veterans are telling him we saved their lives, because that's what we're doing. We all look out for ourselves and our brothers and our sisters in the military. So, let's look out for each other and help out. Contribute.”
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Cannabis Science Conference will also be screening Unprescribed at upcoming 2023 shows. For more information, please visit www.cannabisscienceconference.com.