Navigating Turbulent Seas: A Navy Veteran's Personal Story About Medical Marijuana

Cannabis Patient Care, March/April 2021, Volume 2, Issue 1
Pages: 29-31

Stanley Atkins II turned his personal journey of seeking medical cannabis into advocacy and passion for helping others in his home state and beyond.

Stanley Atkins II has always been a fighter.

Now he is in the battle of his life, taking on all comers as he seeks to make the medical community and Georgia state lawmakers understand the value and promise of medical cannabis, while he works through his own serious medical issues.

These skirmishes are nothing like the battles Atkins had seen during two deployments with the U.S. Navy to the Persian Gulf theater of war, or the battles he fought as a firefighter saving lives, or as a decorated first responder who ran more than 20,000 911 calls as a paramedic.

His intensely personal battles are also about recovering from a mysterious physical ailment, fighting against the stigma of cannabis, and the outdated and misguided laws of a nation that he so proudly served.

Atkins is on a journey to bring the hope of a new therapy to fellow veterans like himself, working as a cannabis therapy educator and advocate, and a voice for the voiceless among lawmakers.

It is a journey that he seemed destined to undertake. And like all battles he fought, he is all in.

The Cannabis Medic Engages

When Georgia-native Atkins got home from his second deployment in September 2006, he chose a career as a firefighter and paramedic, following his passion for being the kind of person who takes personal risks in the duty of serving others.

In 2014, he got sick with an unknown gastrointestinal disease that would haunt him for years to come and change the course of his life. “When I got sick, it was literally, like, overnight,” Atkins said. “It happened instantly.”

He was sent to about a “half-a-dozen specialists in Atlanta,” and ended up being subsequently treated at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta (1). “Doctors told me that they didn’t know what was going on. I was in all this pain. I was unable to eat. And they told me that I needed to go to low dosage radiation therapy,” he said.

He was prescribed opioids for the pain. They worked their magic. But being on opioids was not the life he wanted to live. “I was telling the doctors about having these reactions to the opioids and they blamed it on everything but the opioids,” he said.

Doctors gave up on him, telling him he may have six weeks or six months to live. It would be a painful death. “I was sick. I was dying,” he said.

So he started researching alternative therapies just as legalized cannabis was making headlines in Colorado. “I looked into it and wondered if it could potentially help with my stomach,” he said. “And that’s when I came across tinctures, oils, terpene profiles, and learned about the endocannabinoid system because I didn’t even know I had one.”

The VA Struggle

He transitioned his treatment to the Veterans Administration (VA) services in 2017, beginning a long battle about his treatment, and about his choice to make cannabis part of his treatment regimen. “I’ve been deemed noncompliant on multiple occasions because up until last fall, I had not taken a single opioid from the VA," he said. "In 2016, I was able to detox by myself. It was the longest, most difficult journey.”

He told his VA doctors that he had chosen alternative therapies instead of opioids, such as acupuncture, tai-chi, yoga, ancient Chinese herbs—and cannabis. “They immediately flagged me. I got a lot of flak. I broke my shoulder two years ago. I broke my foot twice last year and I’ve never taken any opioids. With my long gastrointestinal history and all the excruciating pain, it was very shocking for them that I don’t take opioids," he said. "But everything took a trip south last year when I suffered a terrible inguinal hernia.”

For the first time, Atkins requested something for pain. “What I was trying to tell them was that for me to actually ask for something for pain, that meant something seriously had to be wrong,” he explained.

He ended up hospitalized three times last fall.

And then the stigma of cannabis kicked in. Physicians tried to attribute everything to his cannabis usage. “Of course, they were saying I was suffering from cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (2). My anxiety comes from not having cannabis, they were saying. My night sweats and the night terrors came from cannabis. They completely denounced the inguinal hernia that two physicians confirmed,” he said.

Atkins explained that the doctors were going to supplement his pain medications with psychiatric drugs like Cymbalta (3), Celexa (4), and a few others. “That’s when I was deemed noncompliant again because I told the VA I’m not going to take medications that could potentially create a chemical imbalance for something that’s musculoskeletal,” he said.

They sent in a psychiatrist who told him that there was physically nothing wrong with him. “They told me that since I didn’t want to take the psych meds, they could not help me,” Atkins said. “In September, I was actually sent to a substance abuse training program, which is a substance abuse treatment plan for cannabis consumption. I was forced into this program.”

The fight with the VA went on and on. He explained that his physicians were totally against cannabis as well as the psychiatric teams. “I feel that there are some physicians at the VA who are open to it,” he said. “But given their contractual position with the Veterans Affairs, they cannot openly advocate or recommend it in their facilities.”

The Advocate Makes His Mark

After Atkins struggle with his VA doctors, he decided to dig deeper into the rules and regulations about medical cannabis in his home state of Georgia. He found advocacy groups like Georgia NORML (5) and the Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform and Education (CARE) (6), and started getting involved with them.

That led to an even deeper dive into what was going on in his state with cannabis. He helped work on several pieces of cannabis legislation.

He learned that he didn’t have a qualifying condition to get medical cannabis in Georgia, and turned to cannabis groups on Facebook to see what else he could find out. “I started finding articles about parents, caregivers, or sometimes even patients who were unable to access the medication in their jurisdiction or in their local state,” he said. “They packed up and went to states and became cannabis refugees.”

Go to another state—that struck a chord. He started a GoFundMe to get the money to get to Colorado, and go to a medical cannabis facility that would treat his gastrointestinal issue. But it didn’t work. “I raised a total of $50,” he said. So he stayed in Georgia, suffering, wondering what to do next.

“Things got really dark for a while,” Atkins said. “I found some people that really helped me out, and some organizations to help me out with tinctures. Some even sent me some terpenes for aroma therapy.”

He went back to cannabis activism and advocacy in Georgia with a renewed sense of determination—and
growing desperation.

It was about at this time, in 2018, when the idea to organize a group he called The Good Medic came to him. It was designed to initially assist with public programming, community health, public resources, public health resources, and community development. “I based it off the fact that when it comes to public health, the bodies or the groups of people that actually have the heaviest impact on public health are often the ones never invited to the public health dialogue,” he said. “And that is first responders like myself.”

He discovered that there were few organizations to support first responders. He found one, Safe America Foundation (7), organized in 1994 in Marietta, Georiga to improve the awareness of safety preparedness in the US through a number of training and networking programs. Good Medic partnered with Safe America Foundation to assist them in
their mission.

Together they launched an official employee procurement program to address the issue of paramedic staffing shortages in Georgia—something he witnessed firsthand. “What every supervisor that’s in charge of logistics and every ambulance company and every fire department knows is that the number one thing they’re going to say every morning is that they just need a good medic,” he said.

To accomplish that goal of providing training and other resources for paramedics, he created the Good Medic Foundation.

The partnership worked well for a time, helping veterans, people with opioid addiction, and victims of human trafficking. “We were able to connect with a large national ambulance company here in Atlanta,” he said. “We got two medical units donated to us.”

Atkins left the Safe America Foundation in 2019. But he reveled in the good that Good Medic did.

The Stanley Group Comes Together

Atkins began to broaden his medical cannabis advocacy work as a speaker at the 2019 Southeastern Hemp and Medical Cannabis conference (8), and MJ BizCon in Las Vegas, Nevada (9).

In January 2019, he was appointed as the Georgia chapter president of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, an advocacy group that was created in May 2017, based in Orlando, Florida (10), with directors in 27 states.

During the 2019 Georgia legislative session, Atkins worked with legislators to ensure minority inclusion within the proposed Georgia medical cannabis program and the Georgia industrial hemp program. Atkins was also the founding member of the Crisis Intervention Team training group (CIT) (11), a collaboration with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and the Georgia Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

He has been meeting with the CIT group for the last three years along with a member of the NAACP, a couple of community leaders, the training officer, the chief of training from the Cobb County police, and one of the emergency crisis officers. “It was really designed with a primary focus on aiding emotionally distressed individuals with a predominant focus on black males, police, and EMS,” he said.

What he discovered working with the group is that sometimes when there’s an emotionally disturbed male, people automatically call the police. “If it’s a white male, they’re a little bit more diplomatic in a lot of cases,” Atkins said. “But we found out that when it was a black male who was showing signs of emotional instability, they automatically
criminalized him.”

The organization is looking at developing the CIT into a national program. They appointed their first few crisis response officers trained to help understand the difference between helping someone with an emotional crisis and bringing in law enforcement to intervene, which tends to escalate a mental health situation.

Then in 2020, Atkins founded The Stanley Group, a consulting company which focuses on connecting businesses with resources needed within the cannabis industry, offering consultation and connections for people seeking medical cannabis. “I realized that some of the things that I was doing in industrial hemp and medical cannabis didn’t directly tie into The Good Medic,” he said. “Right now, we’re working on tying in some clients with our growing ancillary market and seeing how we can leverage that with the Georgia medical cannabis market that’s set to go live this summer. It’s been a
great opportunity.”

He is hoping to on take The Stanley Group national, working with multistate operators plus international clients.

Conclusion

Over time, as Atkins has pursued his advocacy organizations and built his business interests, he continued to self-medicate with cannabis. “When I started this, I started out going down to the capitol wearing two knee braces, a wrist brace and walking on a cane,” Atkins said. “I’m proud to say that through my continued pursuit of alternative wellness, I’m now not wearing knee braces. I don’t even know where my cane is. I’m still alive. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.”

There has been progress in Georgia on cannabis. There have been 12 different jurisdictions in the state that have decriminalized cannabis possession, some of which was prompted by a hemp law Atkins helped pass in the state, he explained. “Law enforcement was pulling people over that had hemp flower in jars or bags where they purchased it,” Atkins said. “They were arresting people for hemp. Then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released a statement advising that they would no longer test suspected
cannabinoid products.”

Atkins is planning a decriminalization ordinance this spring. “It is going to be, by far, the most difficult that I’ve ever participated in. I’ve really planned this one close to the chest. I’m going to attempt to decriminalize Griffin, Georgia, which is my home town,” he said. “I’ve already spoken at a city council meeting. I’ve spoken with the mayor. I’ve spoken with the chairman of the board of the city council, as well as members from the education and school board. I’m working on putting together a community rally at a park with a permit across the street from the courthouse. We’re going to have an active engagement and have speakers there to discuss the potential impacts that these types of ordinances can have.”

He also has aspirations for public office. “I realized that in order for me to truly be impactful in the future, I’m going to have to run for office,” he said. “But I tell you, the strongest way to get involved is see who’s already doing the work in your area. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel and everybody start a new organization. It’s really about a pooling of resources. Find something that you’re passionate about and let that be your driving force. I tell people, my number one saying is advocacy does not pay, but it does
pay off.”

References

  1. https://winshipcancer.emory.edu.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3576702/.
  3. https://www.rxlist.com/cymbalta-drug.htm.
  4. https://www.drugs.com/celexa.html.
  5. http://devold.norml.org/chapters/item/peachtree-norml?category_id=853.
  6. https://www.georgiacannabis.org/business-directory/georgia-care/.
  7. https://safeamerica.org.
  8. https://10times.com/cannabis-convention-atlanta.
  9. https://mjbizconference.com.
  10. https://minorities4medicalmarijuana.org/about-us.
  11. https://www.gpstc.org/about-gpstc/training-divisions/georgia-police-academy/gpa-sections/crisis-intervention-team-cit-training/

Read this article in Cannabis Patient Care's March/April 2021 digital edition.