As a member of the first Army Ranger unit sent to Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Donnie Bumanglag is no stranger to the sometimes horrific realities of war.

Bumanglag, who served as a medic with the Rangers, can still vividly recall many of his combat experiences, including one in which he and his fellow Rangers took more than 300 rounds of enemy fire over a two-day period during the U.S. military’s seizure of the Haditha Dam in Iraq. After leaving the military, Bumanglag began his second career as a patrol officer and narcotics detective with the Lompoc Police Department.

The unique stresses of his two chosen career paths eventually led Bumanglag to an early retirement.

“I reached a point where my body really wasn’t regulating sleep well or regulating stress well,” he said, noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had determined that he had suffered a brain injury. “I was using the VA’s drug protocol, but it just wasn’t working for me.”

In search of a medical alternative, Bumanglag’s wife Sarah, who was also a public safety officer, introduced the veteran to a substance that would drastically change his life: cannabis.

“It made me feel like a human being again,” Donnie said of his reaction to marijuana.

When the legalization of recreational marijuana sales kicks in Monday, the Bumanglags and others who attest to the medical benefits of the plant are hopeful that protections, as well as availability of medicine, increase for medical users in line with the state’s shifting view of the formerly outlawed substance.

“It ended up working wonders for me,” Donnie said.

‘Healthiest option’

Sarah Bumanglag, who grew up in Lompoc and went on to work for the Lompoc and Montecito fire departments, among others, said she knew the string of medications her husband was being prescribed by the VA wasn't working.

“Sometimes they would give him one medication on top of another medication,” she said, pointing to benzodiazepine in particular. “If you look and do the research on it, the contraindications and adverse side effects on those are horrendous. The majority of these single-shooter rampage shooters, they’ve all been mental patients on benzodiazepine.”

Benzodiazepines, commonly referred to as benzos, are man-made and are used for the treatment of anxiety, panic disorders, insomnia, PMS, and nervousness, among other ailments, according to medicinenet.com. They are frequently prescribed alongside opiates and, like opiates, can be very addictive and susceptible to abuse. They have also been found, in some cases, to lead to extreme hysteria and outbursts of violence.

Donnie, a father of four, said he took “40 or 50” different VA-prescribed medications, which he said left him feeling like “I wasn’t in control.”

“I was under the influence of a lot of stuff,” he said. “I reached a point where, as a police officer, I said, ‘I need to be honest with myself — I’m not the most effective problem-solver.’”

After coming to that realization and turning to cannabis — a drug that he, at the time, was tasked with getting off the street — Donnie said he had to walk away from his job for his own betterment.

“If it’s there later, whatever; it doesn’t really matter,” he said of his career. “I had to take care of myself, my own well-being and my family at that point. I feel like (cannabis) should be an option and people shouldn’t have to choose whether they’re gonna pick their career or have their well-being. This is the healthiest option for me.”

Alternative treatment

The Bumanglags are part of a growing community of people who swear by the medical benefits of cannabis, which has been legal for medical users in California since the passage of Proposition of 215 in 1996.

Lompoc native Joe M. Garcia said it was due to his beginning to drink alcohol at an early age that he developed cirrhosis of the liver. The damage to his liver was so severe that he said he was placed on a transplant list and told by at least one doctor that he likely only had another six months to live.

Garcia’s son, Joe A. Garcia, went in search of relief for his dad and ultimately discovered Rick Simpson Oil, a cannabis-based medicine named after a renowned medical marijuana activist. The elder Garcia said he noticed drastic improvements after using the medication.

“It killed my cancer completely,” he said last month. “I’m here today and I’m cured and I feel good. I feel 100 percent.”

While the Garcias acknowledge that results may vary from person to person, seeing his father’s turnaround ended up making the younger Garcia into a believer, as well.

Joe A. Garcia went on to form the Lompoc Valley Cannabis Coalition for Safe Access in December 2016 to bring cannabis supporters together to try to influence government policies and regulations regarding marijuana, particularly in the city of Lompoc. He said the past year has opened up a world to him.

“I’ve gone to several events in California — San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo and other places — where cannabis events have taken place and I’ve had the privilege of meeting several people who have used cannabis to find relief for different illnesses and diseases and sicknesses that they have,” he said.

Not for everyone

Medical marijuana has been touted as a treatment, with varying degrees of scientific backing, for a range of maladies, including nausea and vomiting, pain, glaucoma, epilepsy, and autoimmune diseases. It has also been used to increase appetite, counteract the effects of other treatments, such as chemotherapy, and for weaning people with addictions off of other drugs, like opiates.

It has also been used as a treatment for PTSD in veterans, athletes, and others who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Mark Ashamalla is a specialist with Transitions-Mental Health Association in Lompoc and does a lot of outreach with the city’s homeless population. He said he’s seen first-hand the effects the substance can have on people with addictions and/or mental health issues.

Ashamalla, who is looking to enter the commercial marijuana industry, cautioned that cannabis is not for everyone, but said he is excited to see what the future, as more testing and research is performed, holds for the medical marijuana industry.

“In the mental health profession I see that a lot of people who shouldn’t be smoking marijuana,” he said. “I work with people who are schizophrenic and (marijuana) causes their paranoia or their psychosis, but there are also a lot of people with anxieties and depressions and things that it works for. It’s really getting to that level where a doctor can prescribe it and then figure out which strain you should be using, or not using. It’s coming down to a science.”

While Ashamalla pointed out that some people are surely taking advantage of the availability of medical cards and just want marijuana in order to get high, he said that cannabis should be treated like all other medications and used appropriately.

“I’ve seen it used effectively in heroin addicts in getting them off heroin and off methadone,” he said. “It takes a lot of direction and I think it takes a lot of really using it like a medicine, even with the hardest cases.

“I’m not the complete promoter that says it’s so wonderful, because any kind of smoke in your lungs is unhealthy,” he added. “But there are edibles, there are oils, and now they’re coming out with vapes and such. It’s jumping in leaps and bounds toward what it’s supposed to be.”

Doctors weigh in

Physicians and other medical professionals are still split on the effectiveness and the dangers of marijuana.

A group of 28 physicians affiliated with Lompoc Valley Medical Center submitted a letter to the Lompoc City Council on July 27 that argued against allowing the marijuana industry into Lompoc. The letter mostly focused on the impacts that such an industry could have on local children, but it also raised doubts about the so-called medical benefits of cannabis.

“In reality, there is even little medical/scientific support for the use of medical marijuana primarily because there is little evidence to support its use as superior to or equal to other therapies,” the letter read. “The few disease states for which it may be useful include chemotherapy-induced vomiting, cachexia in HIV/AIDS patients, spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, neuropathic pain, and some refractory seizures.

“In fact, surveillance of medical marijuana use in California suggests that this may not be ‘medical’ and that much of the self-described medical use is for indications other than for those for which there is some evidence as listed above.”

Other doctors disagree with that assessment and suggest that an increase in research and testing will lead to more proof of the medical benefits of cannabis.

Dr. David Bearman, who runs a practice in Goleta, has spent the past four decades working in substance and drug abuse treatment and prevention programs. He has worked for the U.S. Public Health Service and is a former medical director of the predecessor of the state-run CenCal Health.

Bearman is also the author of the two-volume book, “Drugs are NOT the Devil’s Tools,” which explores the history of drug enforcement in the U.S. and suggests that, through motives of discrimination and greed, often under the guise of morality, the country is left with a dysfunctional drug policy.

“I think you need to be aware that there is a great deal of benefit that cannabis has provided to human beings for thousands of years,” Bearman told the Lompoc City Council during a Dec. 5 presentation.

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Bearman argued that the benefits of cannabis outweigh the medical side effects, which he said aren’t extreme and are generally experienced by those who take high dosages in an effort to just get high.

“Cannabis has been used to treat children; used to treat cancer,” he said. “It’s had a great effect on some children with autism (and) Asperger's syndrome."

He went on to say that his research has shown that it’s also useful for treating ADD, ADHD, seizure disorder, and PTSD.

“A lot of you have concerns about whether or not you’re letting loose a demon here,” he told the Lompoc council. “I would say that you’re not. But, you do need to have education.”

No longer ‘taboo’

The Bumanglags said they’re hopeful that the legalization of recreational sales will help erase the stigma associated with marijuana and lead others to try what they see as a much safer alternative to the opiates commonly prescribed by doctors.

“It’s just because of the social aspect that this is taboo,” Sarah Bumanglag said. “People should be given the same amount of options and (cannabis) should be an option for individuals, because there are no contraindication adverse side effects in conjunction with it.”

Sarah said she began smoking marijuana as a teenager at Lompoc High School, where she was also a standout student and athlete — counter to the typical “stoner” stereotype. She said she was honest about her past use when she applied for jobs in the fire service.

Now that recreational use of cannabis is set to become legal with the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, she said she’s hopeful that the protections for medical users — as outlined in Prop 215 — will continue to strengthen and that the use of medicinal cannabis will become more accepted. One way in which Prop. 64 has already aided medical users is that it protects the child custody rights of medical patients.

“People are gonna have to be responsible, as they should be with anything else,” Sarah said. “The hardest part is that alcohol, opiates, prescription medications, tobacco — these are all items that have killed people within our community, children and adults alike. A doctor will prescribe OxyContin, which is supposed to be good for a month and you can take it home and it can kill the whole family if they were to take it (all at once).

“People say cannabis needs to be under a lock and key and in a safe,” she added, “but yet you have a vodka bottle that is a twist top that can kill a kid if they drank it; and same with the pills.”

Sarah, now retired from the fire service, said she uses medical cannabis to help deal with physical pain that she’s endured following two shoulder surgeries and a knee surgery.

“If I actually took the medications as prescribed, most likely I’d be having to go through some program for addiction,” she said. “That wasn’t the route I wanted for myself, so in order to be able to sleep at night, I’d have the little squares, which would help with pain and sleeping and I’d actually get relief from the pain to be able to sleep so my body could heal.”

A new light

Both Donnie and Sarah Bumanglag acknowledge that, through their careers, they’ve had a front-row seat to some grisly scenes that will likely remain etched within their brains.

With so many veterans and other public safety officials struggling with pain and mental illnesses, they say they look forward to the day that cannabis is seen as a safer treatment than alcohol and the other drugs that are often used by people who self-medicate to deal with issues brought on by things like PTSD.

Because marijuana is still classified as a Class One controlled substance by the federal government, VA health care providers are not allowed to recommend cannabis or assist patients in finding it.

“You see a lot of bad stuff,” Sarah said of a career in public safety. “I can drive through the city and say I’ve been on a murder here or a stabbing there or a vehicle accident here or we picked up brain matter on that street. There are certain calls that stick with you.”

Donnie is now going through similar experiences as some people he stopped during his law enforcement career.

He said he’s been hassled by police when he’s stopped alongside a roadway or in another public place to use cannabis to try to offset an anxiety attack. While he said he doesn’t enjoy those interactions, he remembers doing the same thing to others.

As an officer, he said he thought he was paying people a favor when he’d tell them to stomp out their marijuana and/or throw it in a storm drain. Better that than a citation, he said of his mindset at the time.

“It was common practice to have police break pipes or break bongs,” he said. “And I’m only saying this because I’ve done it myself when I thought I was helping them. But looking at it now, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s ridiculous.’ These are people who had medical rights all along, but we didn’t see it as medicine. Most cops see it as a public nuisance, but that’s not the case. Overall, a lot of people they know probably use cannabis.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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