More and More US Veterans are Smoking Weed to Treat Their PTSD
Nov 7 2013
Jeremiah Civil and Christian Slater, two veterans who have been self-medicating with legal and non-legal cannabis. Photos provided by the author
In America, the relationship between doctors and the hegemonic pharmaceutical industry is fraught with painful, mind-numbing contradiction. There’s no better example of this than in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among US veterans and others around the country. Drugs like Risperdal, an antipsychotic, are said to be no more effective in the treatment of PTSD than a placebo. These drugs are widely distributed to treat the symptoms of PTSD, despite allegations that they’re ineffectual in treatment of the condition.
PTSD is a disorder, characterized by extreme emotional or mental anxiety, often the result of a physical or psychological injury. When confronted with a potentially deadly situation, it’s natural for humans to feel afraid—we’ve developed pretty sophisticated fight-or-flight responses to deal with real or perceived danger. PTSD arises when that response is damaged, and the patient feels stressed or frightened even when he or she is no longer in danger. The disease disproportionately affects soldiers deployed in war zones. Very often they are in situations so dangerous that they develop the condition, and return home as shell-shocked emotional cripples. Veteran’s Affairs claims that today, almost 300,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD, although the number is likely much higher due to lack of diagnosis.
According to Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, marijuana could be the answer. Mechoulam is a respected Israeli neuroscientist who studies the use of medical cannabis and its role in “memory extinction.” Memory extinction happens slowly to everyone, but it’s clear that in regular pot smokers, the process may be exacerbated, to say the least. According to Mechoulam, increased memory extinction could be helpful for sufferers of PTSD, reducing the mind’s associative link between external stimuli and traumatic events. Instead of connecting a loud noise with a bomb going off, cannabis can help destroy that link completely.
Dr. Mechoulam speaks on the history of cannabis research and its connection to PTSD.
Despite this research, many states still do not count PTSD as a disorder that warrants a medical marijuana card. Because of this, veterans are seeking other legal and non-legal ways to procure weed. I recently spoke with two young ex-marines who self-medicate their PTSD with copious amounts of marijuana. Jeremiah Civil and Christian Slater are veterans of the Iraq War. These men saw things that would make the average citizen cringe in horror, and they left the war with deep emotional scars. Both Jeremiah and Christian were diagnosed with PTSD shortly before returning home, thrown into the wild world of a society that doesn’t understand their condition.
“When I smoke, it makes my brain slow down enough to deal with all of the shit out in the world. It helps me reach a balancing point. I’ve been on every drug they have out there and none of them did what marijuana has done for me,” Christian told me over an enormous spliff. In the military, he worked as a nuclear biological chemical defense marine and a mortuary affairs specialist, and spent time in Mozambique and Latvia doing embassy security. During this time he was unfortunate enough to be inside a tank that was flipped over. He suffered serious spinal cord injuries, and after spending the better part of a year inside a hospital, he was eventually released. Upon his return, he was diagnosed with PTSD and given a slew of prescription drugs to help the symptoms and relieve his back pain, which he still suffers from today. He doesn’t seem to think being given all of these opiates is as great as I would have expected, for myself at least.
Jeremiah spent much of his time in the marines in mortuary affairs retrieving and identifying dead bodies. He was diagnosed with PTSD and also prescribed dangerous drugs. “They don’t tell you that some of these drugs are extremely addictive,” he told me. He suffered with problems of addiction to the benzodiazepine, used for everything from sleep aid to anxiety relief. He eventually decided there had to be something better than popping pills all day.
Both of these guys denied their PTSD at first and fell into dismal downward spirals drenched in enough cocaine and alcohol to down an elephant. The drugs Jeremiah was given to treat his symptoms made him feel like a zombie. He told me he could have sat and watched someone slice off his penis and wouldn’t have cared.
This “zombie effect” has been noted by many scientists and doctors across the board. A clinical study on the effects of benzodiazepine showed that patients “did not have a salient beneficial effect on the course of their illness.” Essentially, all these drugs do is make you feel less of everything.
The effects of PTSD were detrimental to Christian and Jeremiah’s ability to leave the house and go about their days. “You’re looking at every piece of garbage as a bomb, looking at every open window, rooftops,” Christian said. Both said that they would hear a noise outside their homes at night and grab a gun to investigate—watching for the enemy.
They eventually came to accept their PTSD in their own way, looking for methods to treat their symptoms outside of the drugs they’d been prescribed. The only thing they found that was able to help alleviate their symptoms was weed.
“When I smoke pot it takes care of my depression and anxiety. It makes it so I can go out in public. If someone tailgates me, I’m more likely to not give a fuck, and it doesn’t make me zombie out,” Jeremiah explained, saying that if someone tailgates you in Iraq they might be on the verge of attacking you.
Christian still has to take medication to deal with his pain and other symptoms, but is far better off since he started smoking weed. He was given a medical marijuana card for his back pain, but claims almost all veterans with PTSD are pot smokers. Jeremiah is still waiting until January for his home state of Oregon to add PTSD to the list of conditions that warrants a card. “If I could say one thing to anyone who’s afraid to try marijuana—just don’t be,” Christian says.
It may not be completely the fault of the doctors. Without PTSD as a reason one can obtain a medical marijuana card, doctors cannot prescribe it. Christian told me that marijuana might even help his chronic pain more than his PTSD, but the doctor told him that he couldn’t prescribe the medical card for PTSD. Jeremiah felt that marijuana was the best thing he could ever ask for to help his PTSD, but he has to wait until his state legally accepts his condition as a reason to get a card. They both claim their PTSD has improved overall (whether they’re stoned or not) since starting to use marijuana.
Groups like the Veterans for Medical Marijuana are helping make PTSD a symptom covered under acceptable reasons to get your medical card. The group’s mission statement is “to ensure that state laws allowing for the medical use of cannabis recognize medical conditions common to veterans, such as chronic pain and PTSD.” This group hopes to make it legal to prescribe marijuana PTSD in states where patients can legally obtain marijuana.
“I wouldn’t be able to go to school and get good grades without it,” Jeremiah says. He currently gets A’s in almost all of his classes, studying environmental science at Portland State University. He claims if he were still on prescription drugs he wouldn’t be able to focus in school.
He told me one of his tamer stories that may have led to his PTSD. Jeremiah had to reach into a body bag to identify a corpse. The bag had been buried, and inside he found the soupy remains of an Iraqi soldier, with a Ziploc bag containing prayer beads identifying the dead man for his family. Jeremiah laughed when he told me the story, but the look on my face was one of sheer terror.
These men have seen things that they will not soon forget. They claim that the doctors involved with the Veteran’s Association are more than happy to fork over a duffel bag of prescriptions and send you on your way, but they don’t go the full nine yards in considering what the effects might be. Many veterans today live half-lives due to the numbing effects of their drug regimen. Weed seems to be a golden ticket for these ex-soldiers.
PTSD and the legalization of marijuana may be taboo subjects, but these subjects are issues that seriously affect people like Jeremiah and Christian’s day-to-day lives. Without marijuana, Jeremiah would be unable to pursue the goals he is currently pursuing and would likely have gotten himself in a lot of trouble. I contacted Veteran’s Affairs for their opinion on the use of marijuana for PTSD but did not receive a response. It is likely that such an organization would be reluctant to admit the effectiveness of something that the federal government is still viciously fighting against. The voluntary gladiators we employ as a nation are injured—those sworn to help them are screening their calls.
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