When Brian Eberhart suffered a gruesome leg injury during a martial arts training exercise in the Marine Corps, it set off a chain of events that led to four surgeries and prescriptions to an array of opioid pain medications.
It also left him addicted to the painkillers he said were freely prescribed to him.
Eberhart, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and now works at a marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas, said he eventually turned to marijuana to help him quit taking opioids and control his pain. It worked, he said, and now he’s working to help other veterans by advocating for a Nevada ballot question to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
In a TV commercial released this week by proponents of the measure, Eberhart gives a testimonial about the benefits of marijuana for veterans.
Recently, Eberhart walked through his experience with painkillers and marijuana in an interview with the Sun. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
How long were you in the Marine Corps, and what prompted you to serve?
I was in for 3 1/2 years before I got out with a medical discharge. I grew up wanting to be in Marines. My grandfather was in the Marine Corps, and a bunch of my uncles were, too. My older brother was in the Navy. So we’re a big military family. After (high school) graduation, the very next day I was in a recruiter’s office.
How did your injury happen?
In the Marine Corps, we have our own form of martial arts. It’s not something you’re required to do, but it looks good on your record for promotions. So (while stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego) I was taking part in training and I was helping the instructor show a move. Instead of walking through it, he decided to execute it at full speed without letting me know. He threw me, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground on my back with my pinkie toe touching the mat. It snapped by fibula 4 to 6 inches vertically. And then I fell on my foot, which broke my tibia in half. My right foot rotated all the way behind me.
What happened after that?
The swelling was so bad in my ankle, we had to wait 18 days before I underwent my first surgery. They put a six-inch plate and six screws in my fibula, then two screws to reattach the tibia. Then there was a ninth screw that went between both bones. The second surgery came about two months later, when they removed that ninth screw. At that point, they said basically I could now start my recovery, and the doctor gave me about four months to be back at 100 percent. But four months go by, and I’m still in extreme pain and have no range of motion in my ankle.
So there were more surgeries?
I went in for an MRI and found that I’d torn the interior ligament of my ankle, and my Achilles tendon had shrunk because of the lack of motion. They also found scar tissue masses (along with areas of bone that had died because of lack of blood flow). My third surgery was on my 22nd birthday, in August 2012. Then I had a fourth and final surgery. After that, they put me on a CPM (continuous passive motion) machine, where you strap your foot in and it moves it up and down. Throughout the whole experience, there’s just intense pain.
You mention in the ad that you were being prescribed multiple painkillers during your surgeries and rehabilitation period, including OxyCcontin, Percocet and hydrocodone. How much were you being given?
As much as I wanted. There was one point where I was getting it from two separate doctors (as well as from staff at a pain-management clinic). All it took was one phone call. It wasn’t even my surgeon. It was an assistant to an assistant. There were no roadblocks, and no one at any point was asking how much I was taking. They never cared. The only thing they would ask is, “Do you need any more?”
So how much were you taking?
I would wake up and take two, then another two after breakfast, another two after lunch, another two at dinner, another two at bed. I wasn’t keeping track, to be honest, but there was a whole lot.
How did that affect you?
You feel like you lose part of yourself. You can’t think clearly. There’s always that huge fog that’s weighing on you. That opioid high, it’s so much more intense than marijuana. You don’t know how you’re living; you don’t know what you’re saying to people at times.
What prompted you to get off opioids?
When I first got out of Marine Corps, I had to move back east to New York. I had about a one-month supply (of opioids) when I got out, so I had to figure out what the next step was. I’d built so much distrust with the VA that I wanted nothing else to do with them, so I had to consider my options. Where I’m from, heroin is a huge option. It’s readily available anywhere you go. So I had to decide: Do I want to continue his life, or do I want to better myself and actually become a human being again? A good friend of mine suggested I smoke weed. So I did, and that’s what saved me. Being able to smoke weed is what got me off of the painkillers and made (the withdrawal) bearable.
Were you a drug user before you got in the Marine Corps?
There were times in high school when I smoked marijuana, but I wasn’t dependent on any drugs. As soon as I was in the Marine Corps, I didn’t smoke any weed. In my mind I was going to be a career Marine, so I tried to walk the line as tight as possible.
You’ve essentially traded one type of medication for another. Why do you feel like marijuana is a better way to treat your pain?
When you’re on heavy opioids, you’re so numb to your own body you don’t know what you’re doing. You go through physical therapy, but you can’t feel anything — you find you could have only exacerbated your injury. Then there’s also the fact that opioids are toxic. They ruin your liver, they ruin your whole body, they make you constipated. It just tears you up internally. You’re addicted. Marijuana doesn’t do that.
What was it like to move to Nevada where you could get marijuana legally?
It’s been unreal in a sense. Because I still see myself as that Marine. You’re supposed to be the good guy, you’re supposed to uphold the law, you’re supposed to be that good example for people. But (in places where the drug is illegal) you’re going out late at night to buy weed from some guy. You don’t know who you’re meeting. You’re putting money back into the gangs and all the street violence where instead you can come to a dispensary where everyone greets you with a smile, it’s clean and you get test results that show exactly what’s in the product you’re buying. You’re on the good side now, you can take that pride again.
How did you get involved in the campaign?
I’m an assistant manager at one of the dispensaries (Blüm Las Vegas). I was seen at an event, and they asked me to help. To be asked to be the spokesman, I’m now filled with that same pride I used to feel as a Marine.
But given that medical marijuana is already legal, why did you feel the need to go to the next step and advocate for recreational use of the drug?
Because I know there are people who are still extremely scared to go see their doctor about it. I was scared at first. I felt I’d lose my benefits, would lose my access to the VA.
Finally, the opponents of this measure are arguing that there will be social costs of legalizing marijuana, like increasing its availability to children and creating public safety problems like intoxicated driving. What’s your feeling about those concerns?
Being more accessible to kids, that ultimately comes down to the parents being more responsible. You can’t tell me that I can have a cupboard full of pills — some of which a kid could die from by eating only one — but not marijuana. Don’t get me wrong, if a kid eats a gummy (marijuana-infused candy), it’s a terrible thing. No kid should experience being high; that’s not something I’m advocating for. But they’re not going to die. By the same logic of opposing marijuana because of accessibility to kids, then everything under your sink should be illegal. And as for public safety, it’s been proven that cannabis doesn’t affect your motor skills like alcohol does. You’re so much more aggressive on alcohol.