There are over 19.3 million U.S. military veterans, according to the United States Census Bureau, and among those veterans, PTSD is prevalent. 30 percent of veterans from the Vietnam War have or had PTSD; 12 percent from the Gulf War; and between 11 and 20 percent from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have it based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The sad truth is that, up until recently, the only solutions for PTSD that veterans could seek were either narcotics or opiates. At first, it might not seem like a problem until you realize that the death rate from opioids among VA healthcare recipients is nearly double the national average. And that’s just the surface of the issue. Don Paco, a retired Marine who served three tours in Vietnam, has experienced PTSD and the resulting struggles firsthand.
“Vietnam was hell. It was very macabre,” Don remembers. “I suffered from sleep deprivation. I saw my friends getting wiped out all the time. It was ugly. During the war, I took some shrapnel and came down with malaria, and when I came back, I was totally enraged from my experiences. I had nothing but hostile emotions and I wanted to destroy everything in my path. You couldn’t talk to me. My friends and family were leery of me, and I knew I was suffering from PTSD, but the first time I met my psychiatrist he was just about sleeping at his desk. I had to explain what I needed and all he did was prescribe massive amounts of narcotics to pacify me. I was prescribed 180mg each of Hydrocodone, Valium, Sertraline (Zoloft) and Morphine.”
After Don was placed on his extensive medication regimen, his life didn’t get better; it started to go downhill. He was altered both mentally and physically, and his friends started to worry that he would kill himself or someone else if something wasn’t done. Then, in 1971, while sitting around a friend’s apartment, he was introduced to cannabis.
“Instantly, I was comfortable for the first time,” Don describes. “I had been on edge for so long and suddenly I felt better. That’s when I started using cannabis permanently, and I have no doubt that I would be dead or worse without it.”
Slowly, cannabis helped Don cut back on many of his other medications, even helping him deal with withdrawals. Now, though he still takes pain medication for his injuries, he uses cannabis for everything else. He takes it twice a day—once in the morning and once right before bed—to help him get through the day and get the sleep he needs.
The problem is that cannabis still isn’t officially recognized as a treatment for PTSD. While earlier this year both Congress and the Senate put their seal of approval on an amendment that would prevent the VA from using funds to stop doctors from recommending medical marijuana, that doesn’t mean that veterans automatically have access.
“Instead of mocking it, the government needs to do more tests to show the positive effects.”-Don Paco, Vietnam War Veteran”
“The VA has a policy of drug testing and some doctors won’t prescribe you the medication you need if you test positive for cannabis,” Don explains. “Instead, you have to go through a few doctors to find one that won’t mock you for your medical marijuana use.”
It’s an unfortunate truth for many veterans that medical marijuana isn’t readily available or accepted, but Don has a solution. “Instead of mocking it, the government needs to do more tests to show the positive effects,” he states. And the good news is that’s exactly what’s happening.
A new study, federally approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and licensed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), will allow Arizona and Baltimore researchers to study the effects of medical marijuana on PTSD sufferers. The study will review 76 veterans to determine whether marijuana is an effective treatment. It’s the first time that the DEA and the FDA have approved a randomized, controlled study using the actual cannabis plant and not oils or synthetics. If the study is successful, marijuana could eventually be prescribed to anyone with PTSD.
The study will take place over two years and will require veterans to purchase their marijuana from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. An issue for many veterans is the fact that the cannabis used in the study will be low in THC and CBD (10 percent) compared to what is commonly available in dispensaries (20–30 percent), which could produce skewed results. Another issue is the fact that smoking—using the Fulton Puff Procedure—will be the only way that veterans will be allowed to consume their medication. But it’s still a step in the right direction.
Veterans will be allowed to smoke 1.8 grams, or two joints, a day and will be required to journal their experience. And to ensure the study meets academic requirements, participants will be randomly assigned two of four different strains of marijuana: a high–tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) strain, a high–cannabidiol (CBD) strain, a strain with equal parts THC and CBD, and a placebo.
There’s no doubt that the new study is a positive step for veterans everywhere, and the hope is that researchers will witness the same results that countless cannabis users already have. “It’s impossible to keep track of the number of people that I’ve introduced to cannabis,” says Don. “I’ve seen it [cannabis] save lives, marriages, jobs and impact every facet of life. The government must realize that marijuana is not a narcotic, but a medicine that is beneficial in so many ways.”
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