Don Karpowich was both exuberant and defiant. Even philosophical.
For nearly three years, the disabled veteran had attended protests in Trenton and Philadelphia, and had testified at legislative hearings in the hope that veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome would someday win the right to use medical marijuana.
On Wednesday, as snow swirled, Karpowich finally tasted success.
“I’m like, uh, I can’t get this smile off my face,” he said as he emerged, beaming, from a back room of a dispensary in a Bellmawr industrial park. He clutched a paper bag filled with $328 worth of packets of Lavender and Blue Dream cannabis buds and long plastic bottles containing topical cannabis oils.
“I am relieved that finally I can go home and not worry anymore about being a criminal,” said Karpowich, whose wife, Ines, drove for nearly two hours to take him to the Compassionate Sciences dispensary from their home in Morristown. They were accompanied by his therapy dog, Riley.
Karpowich said that he previously purchased cannabis illegally and got relief from the sleeplessness and agitation caused by PTSD.
Six months ago, Karpowich celebrated when Gov. Christie signed a bill that added PTSD to the list of about a dozen ailments that qualify for medical marijuana use in New Jersey. Pennsylvania plans to include PTSD when it implements its program in the next year or two.
Karpowich, 58, a former staff sergeant with Air Force special operations, was found to have PTSD decades after he found the bodies of seven “brothers” from his team and 11 other passengers in a C-130 plane that had crashed into a mountain near Zaragoza, Spain.
For years, he had repressed the memory of that night, and he became an alcoholic, he said. Marijuana helped him with sobriety, and also helped him get off oxycodone and several other medications he was prescribed over the years for the pain caused by his many parachuting missions and the anxiety that PTSD triggered, he said.
Karpowich said he participated in at least a dozen protests at the statehouse in Trenton, holding signs and "ambushing lawmakers" to get them to consider expanding the medical marijuana program. "Veterans have served their country, and no one should tell them they can't use marijuana if it helps them," he said.
He also testified at a New Jersey Senate committee hearing last year.
In November 2015, Karpowich participated in a demonstration at Independence Mall following a Veterans Day parade. He and 21 other veterans played dead in the street in an event organized by Weed for Warriors, a national pro-cannabis veteran’s group, and Philadelphia cannabis activist Mike Whiter. The “die-in” demonstrated the suicide rate of veterans – an average of 22 each day – dating to 2003, when the Iraq War began.
The high suicide rate and the suffering of veterans concerned him, but Karpowich said he was reluctant at first to go public about his PTSD. But he said he wanted other veterans to discover how cannabis might help alleviate PTSD and wanted to champion the effort to make cannabis legal. The long beard he is growing is also a tribute, he said, to the memory of the “brothers” he lost when he served in the military.
Though Karpowich was thrilled when the PTSD bill passed, he was angry that Christie stalled before signing it into law. For years, Christie said he would veto bills that would make cannabis available to more patients, saying the program was a back door for people who just wanted to get high. When he signed the bill last September, he said he wanted to honor veterans who might want to use cannabis, but also stipulated they first would have to exhaust conventional treatments for PTSD, in order to prevent abuse. That could include psychological treatment and traditional medications.
Karpowich said Christie was wrong to treat veterans as if they “were babies.” But he said he was determined to get a medical marijuana ID and spent the next few months getting approvals from his doctor, a psychologist, and the state Health Department, as required.
He became frustrated, he said, when it then took two more months for his wife to undergo a background check so she could be his designated caregiver.
“You have to go to a specific place to do the fingerprints, and they do a records check, and it takes a really long time,” Ines Karpowich said. Her husband's doctor wrote a three-month prescription on Dec. 22, but because of the delay, her husband will have to return next week for a new prescription, she said.
Don Karpowich said he decided to go the Bellmawr dispensary – the farthest from his home – because it is the only one approved to sell cannabis oils. The other four only offer buds. “I like to dab,” he said. “It brings quicker relief.” In addition, the Lavender strain should help him sleep, he said, and the Blue Dream buds will be good for daytime use.
Karpowich was so eager to try the cannabis after he made the purchase that he decided to light up in the parking lot of a convenience store two blocks away. When he saw a state trooper's cruiser parked in the lot, he said, he was not rattled, but viewed it as “an omen” that he was on the road to recovery.
“It’s almost like a test to see if I was going to get stressed,” he said, beaming. “But I’m legal and I don’t give a s--.”