For about four years, Bryan Buckley served as a Special Operations Commander with the Marine Raiders. During that time, he pulled his team through more than 40 combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Buckley returned home to America a decorated war hero, sporting a Bronze Star Medal for heroic service as well as a Purple Heart Medal for wounds received.
He brought back something else with him, too: PTSD. The condition, short for post-traumatic stress disorder, left him restless at all hours of the day and greatly complicated his reassimilation into ordinary, suburban life. For his pain—equal parts mental and physical—doctors presented him with a bottle of prescription opioids, a highly addictive medicine that hurts more than it helps.
Buckley might have followed other veterans down this dark path were it not for the advice of an old friend. Andy Miears, a fellow member of the Marine Raiders who fought alongside Buckley in the Middle East, had started using cannabis. Seeing his comrade make the transition from warrior into cultivator, Buckley decided to try weed for himself. What followed was the first solid night’s sleep he’d had in years.
Soon after, Buckley and Miears, along with another Special Operations veteran named Matt Curran, founded both the Helmand Valley Growing Company as well as a non-profit organization, the Battle Brothers Foundation. The goal of these organizations is nothing less than to “put an end the opioid and suicide epidemic plaguing our Nation’s Heroes” by pushing for wider access to medical cannabis.
Feeling Human Again
Buckley isn’t the only person whose life changed for the better after he started smoking; PTSD-related Reddit forums yield an optimistic response from self-medicating patients, some of whom are veterans, others victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault. User Grayperegrine calls cannabis a game changer. He shared, “I stay within my dose limit and my hyper vigilance starts to fade and I feel like a human again.”
Another user, Puzzleheaded-Bat-994, says they don’t know what they would have done without marijuana. “I’m not saying it’s a magical fix, but it’s an instant relief for me. When I’ve totally lost my footing and I’m spiraling out, one or two tokes really calms me. It helps me achieve that ‘light’ feeling, and I’m able to laugh and be silly and touch all those emotions that get blocked.”
If, like veteran and Extract Labs founder Craig Henderson, THC only exacerbates feelings of paranoia and anxiety, the cannabis plant might still be of use to you in other ways. In Henderson’s case, he developed an interest in CBD oil, which in turn inspired him to get a Master’s in Engineering and launch a company whose product could travel freely between borders without complaints from the government.
Though these personal accounts should not be mistaken for medical advice, an increasing number of studies suggest cannabis’ potential to treat PTSD symptoms. Last year, researchers at Wayne State University made this claim on grounds that cannabis use reduces activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions of fear and which in PTSD patients is pretty much always set on overdrive.
“Less is more,” is Buckley’s suggestion for veterans wondering if cannabis is right for them. “Don’t go crazy and eat a whole bag of edibles. See how the medicine works with you, and go from there. You can always add more if you need it.” In an ideal world, adds Buckley, there would be enough data to determine which strain or quantity is right for which type of PTSD.
When Opioids are Legal but Weed is Not
Despite positive responses from patients and optimistic findings from independent researchers, medical cannabis has yet to be legalized in as many as 14 states, meaning a considerable part of the veteran population does not have access to this effective and comparatively safe form of medication.
The suffering this inequality causes has many different sides to it. Think about disabled veteran Sean Worsley, who is facing a five-year prison sentence for being taken into custody by South Carolina cops for weed he bought in Arizona. PTSD patients are risking their livelihoods searching for weed on illicit markets, or become hopelessly addicted to opioids prescribed by their friendly neighborhood physician.
Buckley believes nationwide legalization could stop the opioid epidemic and upend illicit markets, but in order for that to happen, clinical studies will have to reaffirm the findings of independent research—something that is currently impossible under federal law, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic without medical benefits that cannot easily be given to test subjects.
“As long as cannabis remains schedule 1,” Buckley claims, “research is limited.” The government bases its understanding of cannabis on flawed tests conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “A person who participated in those tests said they almost intentionally stuck more seeds and twigs into joints, that the weed was moldy and not stored properly. It wouldn’t pass a third-party testing lab in California.”
Conditions of War
Clinical studies on the medical benefits of cannabis have already been conducted in Israel, where they were met with promising results. Now, it’s about getting judicial clearing to perform similar studies in the U.S., and to convince government officials to consider their outcome. That, Buckley explains with the resolve of a seasoned soldier, is where Helmand Valley and the Battle Brothers come in.
Virtually all of the profits Helmand Valley makes from their adult-use cannabis sales are pumped back into Battle Brothers, which works with Israeli and American doctors as well as government officials to research the potential cannabis shows for treating the symptoms of PTSD. Buckley recalls pouring his first $50,000 of profit into this cause, and confirms he has no intention of going back.
At the end of the day, the love he bears for his brothers-in-arms is what keeps him going. “Federal agencies won’t touch cannabis. What they do have is opiates. It’s all they have, really, and it doesn’t work. We don’t feel good on them. We take about 15 pills a day, and it numbs us out. It’s not the way we want to live our lives. Cannabis is giving our lives back to us.”
Given everything that Buckley and veterans like him have been through, it’s difficult not to root for their cause. “I always look at the people in government and think, ‘You sent us to war; now it’s your turn to fix us.’ I do feel like we are in a war right now. And during times of war, it’s the military that does the battles. No one wants peace more than the people on the battlefield, but you got to set the terms.”
These terms are plain and simple: get an institutional review board to do research on medical cannabis to make the medication available to the veterans who need it.