|Photo: Brent Wojahn/The Oregonian
|Spc. Richelle Golden got a doctor’s authorization to legally use medical marijuana — and her caregiver was her former Guard commander. But, apparently in a cynical attempt to deny her retirement benefits, she faces a court-martial anyway.
Spc. Richelle Golden of the Oregon Army National Guard suffers from two incredibly painful autoimmune diseases. When she got to Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state back in February, she arrived in a wheelchair, expecting to stay a few weeks and be medically retired from service. She immediately reported that she legally used cannabis to combat pain and nausea, and produced her Oregon medical marijuana card.
Now it’s five months later, and Golden is still at Joint Base Lewis-McChord facing court-martial, caught between the laws of her home state, which allow medicinal marijuana use with a doctor’s authorization, and the U.S. Army, which forbids it under any circumstances, reports Julie Sullivan at The Oregonian
The medical marijuana case is playing out at the same base where, last month, members of Congress accused the Army of providing “second-class treatment” to Oregon’s 41st Brigade returning from Iraq.
Golden, 39, is not part of the 41st, but she has been an Oregon Guard soldier for nine years, hired as a full-time Guard member to work recruiting events and then to work for the recruiting commander in Salem.
Her crippling joint pain was diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome, both incurable autoimmune diseases, in October 2008. She was unable to work by January 2009.
Within months, the mother of four couldn’t walk or bathe herself.
Richelle began chemotherapy to control the diseases, but she vomited so much and required so much pain medication that her doctor suggested she try medical marijuana.
Retired Colo. Ray Meyer reassured Golden that it would be OK for her to use medical marijuana, because she was never going to return to duty. He had filed her separation paperwork himself, months earlier.
After her Oregon Health & Science University oncologist wrote a recommendation, Golden obtained a medical marijuana card on January 15, with Meyer registered as the official caregiver who would supply her cannabis.
“It was a legal prescription, by God, and she thought she was out of the service,” Meyer said.
Just a month later, Golden received active-duty orders to report to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Lewis-McChord for her medical discharge. She was one of 432 “warriors” assigned to the unit, one of 34 established after a scandal broke out in 2007 over a lack of quality care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Warrior Training Units serve any soldier who needs six months or more of complex medical care. The soldiers receive military pay as they recover or rehabilitate. The average stay is about 280 days, and 60,000 soldiers nationwide have done this, with half returning to duty.
While the units simply and centralize care, they have also been criticized as “warehouses of despair” in an April investigation by The New York Times.
Army records obtained from Golden’s family show that regular urinalysis was ordered after she reported her medical marijuana use. She tested positive for weeks. Golden said she quit using marijuana when she left Oregon, but marijuana metabolites typically remain detectable for 30 to 45 days.
Golden was given an Article 15 for “wrongful marijuana use” on March 22, and was to be punished by being busted back down to the rank of private, put on probation and restricted to the barracks.
“I was in shock about what was happening,” Golden said. “In my whole military career, I had never received a negative counseling statement or an Article 15. I was also told I could be going to federal prison for two years. I was terrified.”
Golden requested an open court-martial instead; she also repeatedly asked to return to Oregon in a community-based transition program that’s available. She said she feels she’s being driven into a dishonorable discharge which would take away her military retirement and veterans’ disability benefits.
Since February, she has received 22 negative counseling statements from Warrior Transition staff. “They’re creating a paper trail,” she said.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Kurt Schrader on May 17 called for an investigation into possible Army discrimination against National Guard soldiers. Later that same day, Golden said she was called to the Lewis-McChord military police offices, frisked, fingerprinted and told she was being charged with two felonies before being suddenly sent back to her room.
No charges were filed.
Her former commander and medical marijuana caregiver, Meyer, wrote the Oregon Guard last week that they need to bring Golden home.
“They have flagged her as a ‘drug addict,’ ” Meyer wrote. “I am certain that her Warrior Transition Battalion Command is promoting an agenda that is outside the scope of their Mission Statement and they have let arrogance and pride override regulation and common sense.”
But Golden will remain at Lewis-McChord, according to Col. Jerry Penner of Madigan Army Medical Center, who claimed she “is receiving optimum coordinated medical care.”
“Unfortunately, Spc. Golden is a high-risk soldier for medical reasons who requires close supervision,” Penner claimed, trying to justify why she wasn’t allowed to leave.
“Her supervisors must ensure her welfare and compliance with her care plan in accordance with Army regulations,” Penner said. (“Care plan?” Preventing someone from following the course of treatment recommended by her doctor is a care plan??)
Last fall, the Obama Administration announced it would no longer seek to prosecute caregivers and patients who are abiding by the law in medical marijuana states. But the Department of Defense rule remains unchanged: Marijuana is strictly forbidden for active duty and the reserve.
Since August 2007, the Oregon Guard has required soldiers and airmen to declare use of medical marijuana, disclose possession of a card and appear before an “impartial” medical board. The soldier is counseled on treatment options “instead of marijuana,” which they must either quit using or quit the Guard.
What isn’t easily understandable, or perhaps even explainable, is why it seems so important to the Guard to ferret out and eject medical marijuana patients, even when they have excellent service records.
Only two other Oregon soldiers have disclosed their medical marijuana cards, according to The Oregonian
. One was kept on after “seeking alternative treatment,” but the other was discharged because he got his card after he had already tested positive for pot.
“Can someone remain in the uniformed service and use medical marijuana?” asked Oregon Guard spokesman Capt. Steve Bomar rhetorically. “The answer is no.”
In the meantime, Richelle Golden says her medical marijuana disclosure resulted in Madigan medical staff disregarding her civilian doctors’ diagnoses, change her medication and ignore her serious, ongoing medical problems.
“I’m sick,” she said. “I didn’t understand this would become a huge issue.”
Golden is isolated at the Warrior Transition Unit, an uncommon female soldier in a small room in the 1930s-era barracks where she uses a walker to get around. She has four sons, ages 15 to 24, but has seen only two of them since winter.
Golden said she never dreamed her medical marijuana use would endanger her retirement and reputation. She cries frequently, and has called a suicide hotline since February. She has also posted on her Facebook page and elsewhere pleading for help.
She accused the noncommissioned officers supervising her of verbal abuse, and said medical staff has ignored masses on her breast and on her ovary until this week — when her contact with The Oregonian
“I am in so much pain, I can hardly stand it anymore,” she wrote l