NORTH CAROLINA (WBTV) - Down a private road in Rockingham County lives a man who's chosen to make public his deepest struggles. After 29 years in the military, Perry Parks retired in 2003. He served as a helicopter pilot in Korea, Vietnam, and Iran. Perry has seen more than most. Many of the battle flashes that live in his head are ones he'd like to forget. PTSD has plagued Perry since the early 1970s.
"It's the body's response to horror," Perry said. "There are horrible things that happen in war. To have to pull a trigger and see a human life taken, it takes a toll on your mental state".
Parks' PTSD has handed him a lifetime full of struggles. He was homeless at one point and struggled with depression. Prescription pills became the way he learned to cope until a friend suggested he try marijuana.
"I didn't really believe him at the time. But I tried it and I was amazed at how well it worked. Today, I don't use sleeping pills haven't used them in 10 years," Parks said.
Since marijuana is a "schedule 1" drug, it falls under the same federal classification as heroin and cannot be prescribed or researched by the VA. So, Perry purchases his weed illegally.
North Carolina is not one of the 29 states to have legalized medicinal marijuana. Perry doesn't understand why. He's become an advocate for his cause speaking at forums from Rockingham to Raleigh to Capitol Hill.
"I feel like the good Lord wants me to spread the word and I know some people cannot understand that," he said.
A 2017 Elon University Poll found 80% of North Carolina voters supported medical marijuana legalization. Whereas 45% would like to see a law passed permitting recreational use.
For nearly a decade, Charlotte Democrat Kelly Alexander has repeatedly introduced marijuana bills at the state level. In 2017, three separate efforts were proposed and none passed.
Alexander doesn't believe this should be looked at through partisan glasses.
"The drums are beating. Opinions are changing. Conservative citizens, moderate citizens, just regular people have changed their position. The problem isn't the citizenry. The problem is the 120 folk in the general assembly," Alexander said.
While smoking marijuana is illegal in North Carolina, the use of CBD oil, which is extracted from the hemp plant, is not. Hemp can produce lower levels of THC, the chemical responsible for getting a person high. It also contains higher levels of CBD, a therapeutic compound credited in combating seizures, depression and chronic pain.
Ellen Tacher started the Charlotte-based company "Prime Sunshine" after a severe dog attack. She boasts "fresh from the farm" CBD oil and other products.
She admits she was skeptical when she first tried CBD oil.
"I didn't think twice about trying it. I just didn't think it would work. But I was able to come off all of my pain medication in two to three days," she said.
The medication is not FDA regulated. But Abby Childers doesn't care. She says CBD oil has saved her daughter's life.
"At eight months old we noticed Bethany wasn't moving around a lot," Abby said.
Bethany has Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. While she's nine on a calendar now, her brain is developmentally stalled at three years old.
At one point, Abby says doctors had her daughter taking 16 medications. But she was rapidly declining. Hospice was called in multiple times.
"I'll never forget the day I was sitting in the hospital with her and the doctor came in and put his hand on my knee and said Mrs. Childers, you need to go to Colorado," Abby said.
She didn't waste any time booking a ticket and flying to Colorado to buy "Charlotte's Web," one of the first and most well-known strains of CBD oil specifically engineered for kids with seizures.
She returned to Charlotte nervous since CBD was still illegal in North Carolina - But gave it to Bethany feeling as if it was her last hope.
"Her body was so tensed up. Within 24 hours you could see her body relax and everybody says, well, because she was high. You could drink a bathtub of it and not get high," she said.
Abby Childers became an advocate for CBD oil and fought with other families across the state to see it legalized. In 2014, it became legal, but the law had holes. Not one family was helped.
A year later the law was fixed, making it legal for CBD oil to be used in patients with epilepsy who are listed on a state registry. But Abby wants to see it expanded to include more patients.
Dr. Kevin Sabet doesn't have a problem with CBD oil, he just wants to see it regulated.
"Do I think any Joe off the street should be able to start a company without any oversight and sell CBD oil on Amazon? That makes me nervous," Sabet said. I don't think it should be like a vitamin that's out there for anybody".
Sabet heads up "Smart Approaches to Marijuana", a Washington based policy group co-founded by Patrick Kennedy, the former Democratic representative from Rhode Island.
"Today's marijuana is not the marijuana of the 60s. It's not the Woodstock weed your daddy smoked. This is high potency, grown indoors," Sabet said.
Sabet worries legalization is opening the door to another big tobacco.
"We think the marijuana industry is taking their playbook straight from big tobacco. They're hiring lobbyist around the country, they're focused basically on making money and that's what legalization is all about. Money, money, money," he said.
Like tobacco, Sabet worries about the long-term health effects marijuana could have on the body.
"Anything you smoke is bad for you. I don't care if you smoke lettuce, it's not good for you. So now you're inhaling hundreds of other components for which we don't know much about. But we do know they have more tar and carcinogens than tobacco," he said.
Recreational marijuana has been legal for nearly four years in Colorado where Ernie Martinez has been working in law enforcement for more than two decades. He currently serves as a police commander in the Denver metro area and the director of the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition.
"We were the first in the nation to have this petri dish of experimentation that quite frankly is out of control," Martinez said.
Martinez believes marijuana has changed his state and not in a good way.
"We've seen an increase in violent crime. We've seen an increase of homelessness coming into our state because of legalized marijuana," he said.
In 2017, 11 of Charlotte's 86 homicides were directly related to marijuana, according to CMPD. Martinez says legalization won't decrease the violence.
"Organized crime has moved in. We have several tentacles of cases we continue to work as a law enforcement community. The black market has grown. In fact, it's thrived because of legalized marijuana. The black market did not go away. It did not free up police officers to focus on more important matters other than throwing people in jail for marijuana," Martinez said.
While some surveys have found youth marijuana use has decreased in Colorado, Martinez says he's seen the opposite. A 2017 study at the University of Colorado by Dr. Sam Wang found marijuana-related ER visits increased significantly after legalization.
"What I see in my community is more addiction," he said. We're losing a generation of kids".
Back in Charlotte, Cannabis Artist Loude Zue is painting a mural a "One Way Smokehouse" in West Charlotte. Her art not only involves the image of cannabis, but it's also her inspiration.
"This is my breathing, my meditation," she said. This is me thinking and enjoying myself and slowing down".
Loude Zue started smoking pot four years ago because she was dealing with depression and anxiety. She says it unlocked something inside her. And she wishes others could experience that.
"I think we're delaying the inevitable by not legalizing it."