Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Aug. 31, 2020
4 min read

They left America to wage a war. They came home to find another one.

America’s battlefield medicine has come a long way since the last generation of warriors. But the irony is that the men and women who now survive traumatic injuries often survive with emotional trauma, too. And when it comes to treating those illnesses, most doctors don’t have a clue.

Filmmaker Steve Ellmore’s Unprescribed tells the story.

A terse, taut documentary – it’s barely over 70 minutes – the straightforward film focuses on a lawyer, a doctor, an activist and the veterans they’re trying to help. And what seems to benefit these soldiers the most is throwing out all the pills they’ve been getting down at the VA, going home, and smoking some weed.

Their stories are similar, and grim.

Although two medicines have been recommended for PTSD – Zoloft and Paxil – they don’t work for everyone. So doctors prescribe crazy cocktails of other heavy drugs, none of them specifically designed to treat the condition, some of them in staggering amounts. One vet remembers taking 90 pills a day, for three solid years.

The result? “We become zombies on those medications,” one man admits. “Fat, lazy zombies.”

Sometimes the ones who don’t slip into stupors turn violent, even self-destructive. Ironically, one of the side-effects of many of these mood-altering drugs is suicidal thoughts. Considering veterans have all these powerful sedatives anyway, and often easy access to guns, it’s not a difficult path to take.

And every day, 22 veterans take it.

What’s been providing a lifeline for many, though, is marijuana. Admitted, it’s not an easy sell. Many conservative, clean-cut veterans look down on it as a drug for losers and burnouts. At first. But then they find it can provide a gentle cushion, allowing them to sleep through the night, go out in public, be with their families.

“He’s much calmer,” says one wife whose husband traded downs for dope. “A man I hadn’t seen in seven years is starting to come back.”

But there are problems. In most of America, marijuana is either tightly regulated or outright illegal. Depending on his hometown, a veteran caught with weed could face a criminal conviction – and loss of his federal benefits. Advocates and activists have their work cut out for them.

And make no mistake, Unprescribed is advocacy filmmaking. It’s an opinion piece, pure and simple, and its opinion is that marijuana is not only effective, but harmless. Any anti-drug material it includes is strictly Reefer Madness stuff, snipped from old propaganda films and clueless political speeches.

But even if Ellmore doesn’t go out of his way to include opposing viewpoints, the voices that he does listen to are calm, cogent, compelling.

Like a tough-as-leather warrior talking about coming home from the war “a different person,” and how the prescriptions his doctors gave him only left him more damaged.

Or a father recalling getting off the pills and finally being able to function again, doing little things like going to the market or taking his kids to school.

Or the wife simply confiding her husband finally wants to make love again.

For years, activists say, politicians have pushed out an uncompromising anti-drug message, mostly as a way to hassle young people and minorities and prop up the profits of Big Pharma. Their catchy slogan: Just Say No.

Well, Unprescribed offers another idea. If you’re in physical or emotional pain? If pills aren’t working for you? If you’re getting worse, not better?

Just Say Maybe.

4.5 stars (out of 5)