“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Ashley Cooper says this over the telephone toward the end of telling her story, but it’s where you have to start if you want to understand the complexity of this 28-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, social worker, mother, and medical cannabis patient.
Originally from Maine, Ashley was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona when she separated from the military. She had served as a respiratory therapist. During her time in the Air Force, Ashley worked in critical care and burn units, and she spent time working in a local civilian hospital.
“To keep me sharp and efficient in ‘war time skills,’ the military sent me in to serve the community. Not only was the facility understaffed and in need of assistance, but my superiors saw it as an opportunity for training for me and other respiratory therapists,” Ashley said. “I felt hearts stop beating under my hands and heard the cries of loved ones as they begged my team and me to save their person.”
Like many members of the military and like many medical professionals, serving and saving lives–and sometimes being unable to–took its toll. Ashley developed PTSD.
Diagnosed additionally with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Hashimoto’s Disease (an autoimmune disorder that targets the thyroid), she sought medical help. She received pills.
“I took the medicine prescribed by my doctors, because I believed it would help. Instead, the medicines harmed me,” she said. “The antidepressants made me numb to everything. So I didn’t feel depressed, but I also couldn’t feel happiness, excitement, or really anything. My son would be playing or doing something adorable, and I just didn’t care. I couldn’t care. I couldn’t care about anything. Then I had muscle relaxers and pain killers for my migraines and joint pain. I have a family history of addiction, so when I noticed I was consistently taking more than what I was prescribed, I stopped them all cold turkey.”
Ashley said her biological father died from a drug overdose when she was very young, and when she saw herself “going down that same road” with prescribed pharmaceuticals, she said she couldn’t “do that to [her] baby.”
“I was also prescribed sleeping pills for some insomnia that came with the depression, and I was taking them multiple times throughout the day so that I could sleep and not deal with anything,” she said.
Ashley’s experience of feeling over-medicated while continuing to suffer is not unique. The regiment of pills she received is a Western medicine standard.
Veterans sometimes refer to it as “the combat cocktail,” although it is prescribed to plenty of people, like Ashley, who never directly engaged in combat, as well as to civilians who have experienced traumatic events such as natural disasters, domestic abuse, and crime victimization.
The cocktail is composed of something for pain, something for sleep, and something for depression or mood–and it is known for its side effects.
Emotional numbness, loss of libido, digestive disruptions, agitation, and even death are documented side effects from the combination of medicines frequently recommended and prescribed by doctors.
Fortunately for Ashley, Arizona legalized medical cannabis in 2010 (their earliest efforts began in 1996). Her brother–whom Ashley says saw the negative impact all the pills were having on her–worked in the cannabis industry in Maine and encouraged her to give the plant option a try.
“He was like, ‘I know you don’t want to but I’m begging you to give cannabis a try.’ And he was right–I didn’t want to, because I’d been taught my whole life that cannabis is a dangerous drug–but I can honestly say it changed my life. And it changed my son’s life,” Ashley said.
“After experiencing the healing effects of medical cannabis, I got my life back, and my son got his mother back. It changed everything for me. I was able to manage my joint pain and migraines and actually play with and enjoy my child. We went on hikes, went to the lake, played at parks, and I was able to enjoy it.
I was able to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, sit outside, and enjoy a cup of coffee. It sounds so simple, but these were the things that pulled me from my depression. Medical cannabis gave me back my life after my diseases stole it from me.”
Ashley utilized that energy to return to her life of serving others. She had started school to become a social worker in 2019, and with renewed health, she completed her MSW from Arizona State University in May of 2022. Along the way, she worked as a case manager for recovering victims of domestic violence and volunteered as a crisis worker for a local fire department.
“I give through service to make myself complete, but I didn’t fully have that drive until I became a mom–then I started trying to mother everything around me,” Ashley said. “I love being a social worker. I would love to continue being a social worker, but I have to put my health first. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Directly after receiving her Master’s degree, Ashley relocated from Arizona to North Carolina to be closer to her support system–as a single mother, she said, it is important for her to be near her support network.
There is only one problem: North Carolina has yet to legalize medical cannabis. The state is currently considering legislation–SB711, the North Carolina Compassionate Care Act will be voted on soon–and Ashley hopes the bill passes.
“The move was a hard decision for me to make. I haven’t had to take any painkillers or antidepressants for a few years, but I just really felt like I needed to be close to my support,” she said.
“I have dedicated my life to helping others. However, as a new North Carolina resident, I cannot help myself continue to heal due to the laws that prohibit my medicine. I’m unable to work as a social worker if I medicate illegally, but if I don’t medicate, I’ll return to the same symptoms that previously drove me towards suicide. Legalization would mean that I can continue to help not only myself but also others.“
The Compassionate Care Act (Senate Bill 7-11) will allow for the sale of medical marijuana and cannabis-infused products to patients with a debilitating medical condition, including cancer, epilepsy, Crohn’s Disease, PTSD, and nearly a dozen others.
Here’s what the NC Compassionate Care Act would accomplish:
Called The Cannabis Patient Protection Act (CPPA), it was signed into law on April 24, 2015. The new law established regulations for the formerly unregulated medical marijuana system and aligned it with the existing recreational system.
Laws in some of these states do not protect patients from discrimination related to employment, education, rental of homes or custody/visitation of their children.
In 17 of the 36 medical marijuana states, either the laws include some explicit employment protections or courts have ruled in favor of employees — Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia.
Protections for employees who use cannabis under a doctor’s supervision remain limited and differ widely by state.