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A Journal of Cannabis and Culture

Veterans, PTSD, and Cannabis: It’s Complicated

Veterans, PTSD, and Cannabis: It’s Complicated

BY SUZANNE ZUPPELLO

Most cannabis users are quite familiar with the calming benefits of particular strains, and thus, both recreational and medical users might choose cannabis over pharmaceutical drugs to treat situational anxiety and sleep disorders. One particular demographic that’s become increasingly open to using cannabis in lieu of opiates and antidepressants are veterans—even if the Department of Veterans’ Affairs won’t prescribe it.

The Complete Veteran’s Guide to Medical Marijuana

Unfortunately, there is limited research to support the idea that cannabis can be used to treat mental health disorders; most studies conclude that while results are positive, more research is necessary. Yet researchers have largely been unable to conduct comprehensive and controlled studies on the medical benefits of cannabis as it compares to pharmaceuticals because, like heroin, it is classified as a Schedule I drug under federal law. This law does not prohibit funding a controlled study, but it’s used as a fallback for agencies like the VA, which are pushed to explore new, and possibly safer, ways to treat veterans suffering from a variety of mental health and chronic pain disorders.

The lack of VA support for medical marijuana to treat illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, from which 11-30% of all veterans suffer, has not stopped veterans from accessing cannabis. In fact, the gap in care is what motivates veterans like Bob Luciano to make cannabis a bigger part of the conversation of PTSD treatment. Luciano, a Vietnam veteran, developed Mr. Natural in 1990 to cultivate strains of cannabis that would help disabled people like himself in treating illnesses developed during or after their service. His business, recently acquired by Australis Capital, grows “pure organic flower developed for high-THC with intense terpene profiles and rich flavors and aromas” specific to the needs of veterans.

When I first spoke with Luciano, he immediately shared that cannabis was what helped him through the Vietnam War. “People who smoked weed were able to get through it and discuss it with each other…[they] were able to get through what [they] had done, right or wrong.” While serving during what he called an anti-military era was difficult, he said the effects after battle were much worse.

How Cannabis Helps Veterans

Like many veterans, Luciano was prescribed a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to treat his chronic pain and PTSD. But these drugs dulled his senses rather than treated his physical and mental anguish, so he returned to using cannabis for support and encouraged other veterans to try the same. As part of Luciano’s advocacy work through Mr. Natural, he helps veterans navigate the VA so that their cannabis use does not negatively impact their treatment. Some veterans keep these details from their doctors and providers at the VA, because the administration’s clinicians cannot recommend medical marijuana or complete paperwork needed to participate in state-approved programs. However, according to the VA, veterans will not be denied benefits because of marijuana use and should disclose this information. In early April, a new bill dubbed the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act was proposed in Congress to protect veterans from losing benefits due to cannabis usage. The bill would also let VA physicians recommend medicinal cannabis to patients.

“[The] first thing the military or veterans’ administration gives you is pharmaceuticals,” per Luciano, which explains why people like Jake Scallan, a member of the US Air Force deployed to Iraq in 2009, are loaded up on Zoloft, Klonopin, Seroquel, and Vicodin after returning home. Even with this pharmacological cocktail, Scallan almost found himself among the 20 veterans who die by suicide daily—if not for cannabis. After he realized it relieved him of PTSD symptoms without the debilitating side-effects of his prescriptions, he joined Aaron Newsom, a Marine deployed to Afghanistan, and Jason Sweatt, an army veteran, in founding the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA). Their organization grows thousands of marijuana plants in a 17,000 warehouse and sells enough product to allow for a monthly giveaway of flower to other veterans.

These veteran-run cannabis companies understand the importance, firsthand, of treating PTSD symptoms in a way that allows people to still function and live rich lives. But, like non-vet-focused cannabis businesses, SCVA and Mr. Natural can only operate in states where cannabis is legal for medical and/or recreational use, which is why people like Dr. Suzanne Sisley are conducting research that will hopefully change how the VA, which runs the National Center for PTSD, approaches cannabis. Sisley was the lead researcher on the first clinical trial that treats PTSD in veterans with whole-plant marijuana. The study, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), concluded in November 2018 and was the first of its kind to receive approval and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In a 2017 survey, 9% of veterans indicated they used cannabis, and in states where medical cannabis is legal, 41% reported using it medically, which ought to be proof that veterans’ health is improved with cannabis use. Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL, founded the Veterans Cannabis Project to advocate for the 9% of veterans who disclose their cannabis use and the 80% of veterans who support medical cannabis programs. The organization’s goal is to achieve “unrestricted and supported access to medical cannabis through the VA just like any other medicine,” as outlined on their site. But until the results of the MAPS study are published, veterans must rely on anecdotal evidence that supports using cannabis to treat their PTSD. Luciano calls cannabis his “epiphany of health,” while the men behind SCVA credit their ability to hold jobs and keep friends to the plant. As with any treatment for a physical or mental health disease, patients will respond differently to treatments—andcannabis may very well be the best option for some. Time will tell how, exactly, the VA will recognize this, and, hopefully, incorporate cannabis into its available treatment plans.

A Journal of Cannabis and Culture
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