Memorial Day is a time to remember those Americans who died in active military service. It is a time to be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of freedom throughout the years.
It can also be a time to remember and appreciate living veterans, many of which still suffer the traumas of war every day. Of the roughly 9 million veterans who served in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, a recent study estimated that approximately 20% have been officially diagnosed with some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Another more sobering statistic is that on any given day, 22 veterans will take their lives. Many experts claim that this number may be much higher, since only 26 states participated in the Department of Veterans Affairs study where this number comes from. California and Texas, which together represent 20% of the entire veteran population, did not participate in the study.
When a person experiences an extremely negative event, such as those that may occur in war, it is normal for the sympathetic nervous system to react in what is called the “fight or flight response.” When the symptoms of trauma linger long after the fact, however, this could be a sign that signaling in the amygdala area of the brain (where flight or fight originates) is off and PTSD has occurred. According to the American Psychological Association, PTSD can be characterized by the following symptoms:
- Spontaneous and distressing memories of the event that may cause nightmares and flashbacks;
- Distress when faced with people, places and situations that remind the person of the event;
- An inability to remember the important aspects of the event that is unrelated to head injury or to the use of substances;
- Withdrawal from others and social situations in general, even those activities that the person use to participate in and enjoy;
- Inability to experience positive emotions;
- Self-destructive behavior;
- Anxiety, hyper-vigilance, paranoia and exaggerated “startle” response;
- Extreme lack of concentration;
- Mood swings, emotional numbness and overall irritability; and
- Avoidance of people, places and situations that remind the person of the event.
How Can Cannabis Help Veterans with PTSD?
Close to 50% of U.S. veterans do not seek treatment of any kind for their PTSD. When they do, conventional medicine’s answer, in addition to talk-therapy, is to prescribe for a smorgasbord of pharmaceutical drugs that come with them a wide array of dangerous side effects and contraindication warnings. Some toxic medications that are often prescribed for PTSD include:
- Tricyclic Antidepressants
- Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)
Even with all these drugs at the ready for PTSD-suffering veterans, a report issued by the U.S. Institute of Medicine found that the Pentagon and the VA system still lack adequate treatment methods for veterans with PTSD.
Matthew Kahl, the founder of the organization Veterans for Natural Rights, knows what it is like to suffer from PTSD. Ten months after
returning home from two tours in Afghanistan, he attempted suicide. For five years, he tried everything modern medicine had to offer in order to manage his PTSD, often being prescribed several different medications at once in addition to talk therapy. At one point he was prescribed 15 different medications. When Kahl’s liver and kidneys began to fail as a result, he knew it was time to try something different.
That was when he moved his family to Colorado and began using cannabis. The first thing he noticed was the effect cannabis had on the quality and duration of his sleep.
“When I first moved to Colorado, I started initially seeing results in my sleep patterns and what ended up happening was that everything else kind of followed from that in a cascade,” he explained in a recent interview. “The sleep allowed me to actually give up some of the pharmaceutical drugs I was prescribed… I started shedding those pharmaceutical medications as soon as I started using cannabis.”
Kahl said that at first he used cannabis with “high psychoactive effect” in order to change his mood, lift him out of depression and begin to shed the drug dependency. After a while, however, he began to put his background in neuroscience to use in experimenting with non-anxiety producing strains of cannabis sativa.
“I figured out that sativa with very high THC levels and certain terpenes will often give you anxiety, but if you add a little bit of THC-V in the mix, it actually cuts down on the anxiety so you have a much more clear experience…”
THC-V is similar to the psychoactive component of cannabis, THC, and also works in conjunction with CBD for healing, but because the molecule is shaped slightly differently than straight THC, it attaches in a different way to receptor sites that are part of the endo-cannabinoid system. Kahl is currently assisting Sue Sisley, MD and her team in what will soon be the first-ever cannabis clinical trial to focus on veterans with PTSD. Past studies concerning traumatic brain injury (TBI) and cannabis, especially those conducted by Israeli neuroscientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, have demonstrated the neuroprotective effects of cannabis in mice models but Dr. Sisley’s study will be the first to study the effects of cannabis on humans with TBI and PTSD.
Kahl says that ingesting at least some THC in some form is needed in order to change one’s thoughts and mood and help with conditions like PTSD, depression and anxiety.
“…the traditional psychiatric way of pursuing this is to try medications that aren’t psychoactive,” says Kahl. “They developed Prozac in order to be a non-psychoactive version of serotonin…and they have created a monster. They have created a substance that actually kills people and actually causes people to kill themselves.”
As Kahl explains it, part of the mission of Veterans for Natural Rights is not only to advocate for the individual freedom of veterans and others to use and grow cannabis for healing, it is also to create community between veterans, which Kahl says was the BEST version of talk therapy there is, and to promote an overall healthy lifestyle in which cannabis use is a part.
“We are trying to make a healthier lifestyle from the bottom up,” says Kahl. “It’s not about all these pharmaceutical drugs that you can sprinkle on top after you have a bunch of problems. Live a healthy lifestyle from the beginning, consume cannabis and engage in self-healing behaviors like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and exercise. These are all part of the actual cannabis regimen that will help heal veterans from the scars of war.”
How to Begin Using Cannabis for PTSD
If you feel that you would like to use cannabis for PTSD, it is recommended that you start out slowly and use moderate doses in the morning to stabilize blood levels as well in the evening to improve sleep. You can also use a small amount of cannabis, ideally a sativa strain that contains low levels of THC or THC-V, before entering into situations that could trigger PTSD. If you or a loved one is suffering from the symptoms of PTSD and/or the side effects of prescription drugs for PTSD, please contact UPG for more information.