Kris Lewandowski had survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, but he feared the side effects of the dozen pills prescribed by a doctor would kill him.
That’s when the 33-year-old father of two began growing marijuana at home to treat his PTSD symptoms, his wife, Whitney Lewandowski, told BuzzFeed News.
The couple and their two young sons were living outside Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in June 2014 as his honorable discharge from the Marines processed. Finding the best mix of medication for his mental health was a process of trial and error, Whitney Lewandowski said, and one Sunday, there was an “issue.”
“We called for help,” she said.
Comanche County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a report that Kris Lewandowski had been chasing his wife with a knife. As he surrendered to authorities, they found six marijuana plants in the garden.
Local media called it a “major pot bust.”
“When we get there and we find out we have marijuana there that's being grown, it seems to get worse," Sheriff Kenny Stradley told KSWO-TV. "And then with children present this is a bad situation gone worse for the whole entire family."
Though the amount of pot growing at the Lewandowski home would in many states be seen as appropriate, Oklahoma law has no provision for medical marijuana. Cultivation of any amount of the drug carries a sentence of between two years and life in prison — among the strictest penalties in the country.
"They tossed him in jail like an animal,” Whitney Lewandowski said.
Kris Lewandowski joined the Marines in 2005, serving his first tour of duty in Iraq. After returning to the U.S., he met his future wife.
“Everything was good,” Whitney Lewandowski said. “We were young. We were in love.”
They married in 2010, and her husband would go on to serve two more tours overseas. It wasn’t until after their first child was born that he began to open up about his previously internal struggles with PTSD.
“He had to admit there was more to it,” she said. “He wanted to get help so he could be a good dad.”
With injuries to his shoulder and back as well as severe PTSD, the Marines opted to medically retire him, his wife said, and the honorable discharge became official earlier this year. Kris Lewandowski had begun what would be a long road to finding the right medications to treat his diagnosis, which would later be adjusted to include bipolar disorder. The couple also began therapy to learn ways to cope with the everyday struggles of living with PTSD.
“We work very hard just to figure out how to live normally,” she said.
After his arrest, he was released on bond, and the couple retained a lawyer.
“We just couldn’t afford him,” she said.
The family moved home to California with authorities’ permission following the discharge from the Marines. The veteran didn’t qualify for a public defender after he was released on bond and believed that his case was on hold as he searched for a new lawyer. Instead, the court scheduled a jury trial, and he missed the first hearing.
“We can’t even get anyone to talk to us,” she said. “We would have gladly been there.”
After the missed hearing, the judge issued a fugitive warrant, and on June 18, Kris Lewandowski was arrested again. An unmarked car arrived at their son’s preschool where the family had gathered for a water day celebration on the last day before summer. With guns drawn, deputies took him to Orange County Jail, where he remains.
“It was devastating to my children and I,” she said. “They’re very scared and worried about Daddy.”
The Lewandowskis, both originally from California, were unaware of the penalties they faced for growing medical marijuana. To Oklahoma marijuana advocates, however, it’s the latest case of an overactive system that makes little distinction between pot and drugs like meth or heroin.
“We are very much the buckle of the Bible Belt,” said lawyer Chad Moody, who previously ran for governor with the slogan “God, Grass and Guns.”
The law is also applied differently county to county, he added.
“It depends a lot on what courthouse you’re in,” Moody said. “It could be very arbitrary.”
For a first-time offender, a 5-year deferred sentence is common, he said. If a defendant makes it through the probationary period, the felony generally won’t appear on their record.
But if a case makes it to a jury, anything could happen, Moody added.
“They’re drugs. Drugs are bad,” he said, describing the mentality of some jurors.
Norma Sapp, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the state’s current marijuana penalties are the result of 25 years of tough-on-crime campaigning.
“Everyone campaigned on, ‘I’m tougher, elect me,’” she said.
For the first time, though, she said she’s seeing more interest in medical marijuana from locals who have heard success stories from other states. Her group will petition this summer to bring medical marijuana to Oklahoma voters. And though a similar campaign has failed in the past, Sapp said she’s hopeful.
“It’s getting much more recognized,” she said.
Recognition of medical marijuana is also gaining some traction among veterans groups. Kris Lewandowski had been involved with the Weed For Warriors Project, one of a number of groups that advocates the benefits of marijuana for PTSD and other disabilities.
But as a federal agency, doctors with the Veteran’s Administration remain unable to recommend medical marijuana, even in states where it is legal.
The VA’s National Center for PTSD reports there have been no controlled studies evaluating the safety or effectiveness of marijuana on PTSD, and therefore no reason to recommend it as a treatment.
“The belief that marijuana can be used to treat PTSD is limited to anecdotal reports from individuals with PTSD who say that the drug helps with their symptoms,” according to the center.
But change may be coming. Legislation to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana passed a Senate committee in May.
Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who introduced the amendment to a larger spending bill, said patients should be allowed to discuss what they want with their doctors.
“Our nation’s heroes should have easy access to the resources, services and medical care they need and deserve,” the Republican said in a statement at the time.
Kris Lewandowski’s next hearing is scheduled for July 22, and in the meantime, his wife is talking with more lawyers in Oklahoma, raising money for his defense, and petitioning Gov. Mary Fallin for clemency.
Though Whitney Lewandowski still fears for her husband, other veterans are also on her mind.
“It’s now going to be my business that this never happens to somebody else,” she said. “They need help. We need to give it to them. They served their country.”
Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Claudia Koerner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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