These Smarties represent Missouri veteran’s meds; he would prefer medical marijuana

Joshua Lee, a disabled Missouri veteran, found viral fame last week when he posted a photo of 9,828 Smarties representing the pills he takes every year for his medical problems.
Joshua Lee, a disabled Missouri veteran, found viral fame last week when he posted a photo of 9,828 Smarties representing the pills he takes every year for his medical problems. Courtesy Joshua Lee

You don’t have to guess how many Smarties candies Joshua Lee stuffed into the plastic bag he holds in a photo that has gone viral.

He’ll tell you the number: 9,828.

They weigh just shy of 10 pounds. On most days it hurts for him to lift that much weight.

The disabled Missouri National Guard veteran went to two bulk candy stores in Jefferson City and Columbia to round up all those sugary pellets. When the stores didn’t have enough in bulk he bought wrapped ones.

He and his wife, Julia, unwrapped piles of the tiny rolls.

Lee, who is 33, posted his photo online last week, where it was met with shock and awe: Those candies represent the number of medications he takes on an annual basis.

“My medication schedule is a handful in the morning, six or eight at noon and another handful in the evening,” said Lee, who lives with his wife and two sons in Holts Summit.

The photo is the first salvo in Lee’s new mission: He’s become a foot soldier in the grassroots crusade to get medical marijuana legalized in Missouri.

“I’m prescribed 9,828 pills annually by the VA,” he wrote in a Reddit post last week that elicited hundreds of comments, many from other veterans.

“I’m 100% disabled, unable to work or function in most social settings due to an unholy trifecta of PTSD, fibromyalgia, and Arthritis ...

“On a daily basis, I’m munching opiates, narcotics, muscle relaxers, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotics… Oh, and let’s not forget, I need pills to control the side effects of the first pills.

“I’m tired, boss. I’m so … damn …tired.”

He began having health problems in February 2011, a few months after he got home from Afghanistan. He served there with the 203rd Engineer Battalion of the Missouri National Guard from 2009 to 2010, according to the Guard.

As a “wheel to wheel” mechanic he worked on just about anything that rolled.

Back home he faced the kinds of medical problems many veterans are known to deal with. “Physical issues and mental issues compound each other in ways that are difficult to grasp until they happen to you,” Lee said.

He has fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain along with fatigue, sleep, memory and mood problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Lee, who receives disability, spends many days in pain. Simple household chores can leave him laid up on the sofa for days.

He grew up in Oregon, where he camped and enjoyed the great outdoors. He’d like to do that with his sons, but he can’t.

When he’s in pain, he’s surly and snappish — “an absolute bear to be around,” he said — and it almost brings him to tears to think about what that’s doing to his family.

That’s why the story of his wife’s friend grabbed his attention. She moved to Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014, and found that using medicinal marijuana eased her fibromyalgia pain.

Lee had never given marijuana one thought or another. But he and his wife, a licensed professional counselor, started reading medical studies online. Then, for their 15th wedding anniversary last month, they drove to Colorado Springs for a weekend. And Lee tried pot.

“Honestly, for the first time in a long time, I felt like my old self again,” he said.

Good enough, he said, “where I could potentially be good to my family again.”

Besides that, he just wants to get off the pills.

About 60 percent of veterans returning from deployments in the Middle East, and 50 percent of older veterans suffer from chronic pain, according to Veterans Affairs officials.

That compares with about 30 percent of all Americans with the same suffering.

Until a few years ago the VA almost exclusively treated veterans’ chronic pain with prescription opioid painkillers, according to the PBS documentary series Frontline.

The VA began cutting back on opioid prescriptions five years ago, but the number of veterans with opioid-use disorders spiked by 55 percent from 2010 to 2015, Frontline reported.

The trip to Colorado lit a fire in Lee. When he got home he did some math, figuring out how many pills he takes every year. The total shocked him.

Do people even know what 10,000 pills — let alone 10,000 of anything — looks like, he wondered.

That’s when he came up with the idea for the Smarties photo.

“I wanted something that would resemble a pill,” he said. “And I needed something that would be rather durable.”

His viral fame cost him about $60 worth of candy.

He first posted the photo to his Facebook page. “To be honest, I was just really hoping to start a conversation with my own personal friends,” he said.

He figured he’d be lucky to get 100 shares. He quickly got more than 1,500.

Emboldened, he pushed the photo and its accompanying treatise on medical marijuana down the social media pipeline, posting it on Twitter, Reddit and Imgur, where it blew up as a top trending story.

In late March he took that bag of candy to a forum for Columbia City Council candidates and used it as a prop, asking the candidates whether they would support the legalization of medical marijuana if elected.

Some people who have commented online about his efforts have bought his argument. Others have scoffed.

You’re just trying to get the government to give you free weed instead of paying for it like the rest of us, they mocked.

“I am being given thousands of dollars worth of opiates free each month,” said Lee, who gets his medications from the Veterans Administration.

“I really don’t care if the VA pays for (medical marijuana). Don’t get me wrong. That is an ultimate dream goal.”

But for now, he said, he’s willing to pay for it himself if he and others can persuade Missouri lawmakers to follow the 26 states and the District of Columbia that have laws legalizing marijuana in some form.

He’s joined the Missouri Cannabis Industry Association, which lobbies for legalization in the Show-Me-State.

Later this month he’s going back to Colorado for a research conference as part of Project 22, a group working to educate Missouri veterans about the health benefits of cannabis. In Colorado, Lee and other Missouri veterans will be weaponized with research from physicians and researchers to fight for legalization.

He has already spent hours studying the five bills in the House and Senate concerning marijuana legalization.

He’s trying to get face time in front of legislators but has found that going viral was a much easier task.

Last month House Bill 437, which would allow patients with painful, incurable illnesses to be treated with medical marijuana, had a hearing before the Health and Mental Health Policy Committee. No more hearings are scheduled. Nor are any on tap for a similar bill sitting in the Senate, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

People ask him Lee why he doesn’t just move to Colorado, but what he hears is, “Why don’t you just give up?”

“My military training did not train me to run, to crawl away,” he said. “It trained me to stand up.”