Twenty percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. At present, no reliable pharmaceutical treatment exists for PTSD, but cannabis has been shown to provide relief. While some doctors in the US Department of Veterans Affairs turn a blind eye to their patients’ use of marijuana, others take a hard stand against it, and federal law makes it illegal to prescribe cannabis as a treatment. Meanwhile, an ambitious program in Canada helps veterans in that country get medical marijuana prescriptions and provides a communal setting for them to recover. Some soldiers credit it with saving their lives.
It’s January during another dreaded polar vortex, and I’m experiencing for the first time in my life the throbbing ache that occurs in one’s face when the temperature drops below -9°F on a windy day. There are mountains in the distance, but urban sprawl has displaced most of the Acadian forest here in Oromocto, New Brunswick. Any ground that is not regularly stepped on or driven over is a glassy sheet of pure white ice.
Oromocto is a military town, home to the Fifth Canadian Support Base Gagetown, one of the largest training bases in the Commonwealth. Opened in 1956, the facility was meant to train soldiers in case Canada was called upon to fulfill its NATO obligations and defend Western Europe from Khrushchev’s commie hordes. I was invited up here by Fabian Henry, an ex-sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces and the founder of Marijuana for Trauma (MFT), a group that helps 800 wounded veterans and first responders obtain access to medical marijuana—up to 10 grams a day, in fact, delivered to their door and paid for by Veterans Affairs Canada.
MFT’s headquarters is located in a nondescript strip mall. The only thing that might distinguish it from a dentist’s office is the occasional group of vets standing in the parking lot imbibing their medicine. There’s a camaraderie here, a shared sense of joy and relief.
This is the one part of their day these guys know won’t be a struggle.
The Canadian veterans don’t seem to mind me sitting in on their sessions with Fabian as they describe their gripes with the VAC, their problems at home, their outbursts on the job. Sitting at his desk, a keffiyeh wrapped around his neck, Fabian rests his black-bearded chin on his knuckles and listens with the patience of a man who has been where they are. The back of his jacket reads: “This veteran is medicated for your protection.”
There’s a soldier from the local base named Andrew sitting in Fabian’s office, shaking violently, the victim of a nervous disorder related to his multiple symptoms of PTSD, social anxiety and panic syndrome. Andrew has never seen combat; his affliction is the result of the way he’s been treated during his years of service here in Oromocto. He tells the story about the time he was promoted and, rather than pinning the new commendation on his uniform, the commanding officer dropped it on the floor in disgust. Mental abuse, isolation, degradation—the whole ordeal has landed him in the middle of a silent, lonely, neurological hurricane. Andrew came to Fabian for help and eventually hooked up with Nina, a high-CBD strain that, I am told, tightens his screws.
“All I have to do is smoke a CBD joint and the shaking goes away,” Andrew tells me.
“This, I want to see,” I reply.
So now we’re in the parking lot watching Andrew fumble with a lighter while his hand jerks back and forth like it’s glued to an invisible Pac-Man joystick. Fabian helps him out, putting a cherry on the joint. Within four minutes—half the spliff—I notice that when Andrew takes the Bic again and goes to relight, his hand is surgeon-still. He’s been cured like some Christ-touched leper—problem solved, at least temporarily. And I’m standing there like Thomas the Apostle, a reformed doubter, convinced now that it has become my mission to spread the Word.
In 2000, a 20-year-old Fabian Henry found that he no longer had the money to continue going to college. He landed a job on the local military base in Oromocto and, as a lifelong hockey fan, started playing on a civilian team against the local soldiers. He liked the idea that they were encouraged to play hockey as part of their physical training. With not a whole lot of other options open to him, he enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces and became a combat engineer. After being deployed in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions to Haiti, Pakistan, Eritrea, and East Africa, Fabian did two tours in Afghanistan, where it was his job to locate and neutralize landmines and improvised explosive devices.
“Afghanistan is where my traumatic event happened,” he says. “On Easter weekend 2007, six infantrymen blew up 500 meters from our position. Two days later, I got two Canadian soldiers killed.”
As Fabian tells it, it was his job, as the senior engineer, to clear the roads ahead of his convoy. On this day, he managed to locate and explode one mine without incident. Night came, and since he knew from experience that there was always a secondary mine in this kind of setup, he told a sergeant major to pass a message along to the waiting vehicles: They shouldn’t cross until first light, after Fabian had a chance to prove the route.
Unfortunately, the message relayed wasn’t the one Fabian had given to the sergeant major. The convoy moved out, and an armored Coyote reconnaissance vehicle hit a double-stacked TC-6 antitank mine that flipped the vehicle on its side. Two of the passengers were dead by the time the Blackhawk helicopter arrived to evacuate them. Fabian’s decision to entrust an intermediary with that message, rather than take it directly to the convoy himself, was a mistake that he would replay over and over in his head for the next three years.
The trauma did not manifest itself immediately. The battlefield, after all, is a desensitizing place, and it was Fabian’s job to inspect blast sites and pick through the bloody wreckage. The images were filed away in his mind like invoices to be paid at a later date.
“When I came home, I tried to connect with my kids and my wife, but I couldn’t stop being hyper-vigilant; I couldn’t stop thinking about some of the decisions I made,” he recalls. “As I looked into things deeper, I found out that one of the guys [who died in the convoy] was from here. His hometown was here and his parents are here, you know? I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about that. And what you try to do is find a substance or something to eliminate that feeling. You inflict pain, or you want somebody else to inflict physical pain on you—because, emotionally, you’re hurting worse than anything that anybody could do to you.” Out of desperation, Fabian finally tried cannabis, and “when it hit my lungs, it was like phssssshhhhh,” he says of the breakthrough moment. “I don’t know what winning the lottery would be like, but I imagine it is something like that.”
The strain that worked best for his PTSD was Bubba Kush, a strong indica. Worried that the source of his newfound peace would dry up, Fabian paid $37,000 to have 10 pounds of it delivered to him.
“When I had the right concentrated amount of cannabis, it leveled out my receptors immediately,” he continues. “When you’re going from zero to 10 and you’re angry and you’re going to punch somebody out, you can take a puff, and it sits you back and allows you to relax for a minute and think about things before you punch somebody in the face, or kill yourself, or kill someone else.”
Separated from his wife, Fabian now had a lot of time to research his condition. He came across a study by Dr. Alexander Neumeister of New York University’s Langone Medical Center that linked PTSD to cannabinoid receptors—specifically the CB1 receptors—in the human brain. Cannabinoid receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system (named for the cannabis-plant compounds that led to its discovery), a network of chemicals and signaling pathways that promote homeostasis in the body and help regulate the nervous system, among other things. The endocannabinoid system is deeply connected to memory, mood, pain and other functions affected by PTSD. Through brain imaging, Dr. Neumeister discovered that PTSD sufferers have an elevated number of CB1 receptors in the brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, and lower concentrations of the neurotransmitter anandamide (taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning, “joy, bliss, delight”), which binds to these receptors. Dr. Neumeister found that the use of cannabis caused a spike in anandamide, which, in turn, corrected this imbalance.
In a statement accompanying the publication of his study, Dr. Neumeister said: “There is not a single pharmacological treatment out there that has been developed specifically for PTSD. That’s a problem. There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressants simply do not work. In fact, we know very well that people with PTSD who use marijuana—a potent cannabinoid—often experience more relief from their symptoms than they do from antidepressants and other psychiatric medications. Clearly, there’s a very urgent need to develop novel evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”
It was almost as though the brain researcher had given Fabian Henry his marching orders. Fabian’s kitchen table soon became a combination office, library and proving ground, the place he invited other veterans to try the plant that had worked for him. As he gauged its effects on his friends, he found that cannabis not only helped with PTSD, but also chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, irritable bowel syndrome, erectile dysfunction, nervous disorders, and alcohol and drug addiction. Before long, wives were thanking Fabian for giving them their husbands back; kids were commenting that their dads were present in their lives again. Considering the calamitous suicide rate among Canadian vets, Fabian felt it was his duty to take things to the next level—and so he founded Marijuana for Trauma.
Not only did Fabian help other veterans get their medical pot prescriptions, he showed them how to get it paid for by Veterans Affairs Canada and delivered to their door. He pored over sections 2.1 through 2.4 of the New Veterans Charter, which deals with psychiatric impairment, and started coaching vets on how to receive payments from the VAC that they had no idea they were entitled to. He searched out doctors who enthusiastically prescribed marijuana and psychologists who thought outside of the pharmaceutical box. He even enlisted his old friend Matt Ferris, a nutritionist, to help the guys break their lousy eating habits.
Along with microbial biologist and cannabis breeder Dr. Darryl Hudson, Fabian devised the “Platinum Kush” program, which researches the strains that work best for PTSD. By giving their volunteers unlabeled strains, they discovered a definite hierarchy of effectiveness. The pair continued their trials at the 2014 High Times Cannabis Cup in Denver, and today they list Chemdog, Rockstar OG Kush, Master OG Kush, Chem Chem and Chem ’91 as providing the most relief. MFT also enlists veterans experienced with the program as “peer-support cannabis coaches” to help guide newcomers to the most effective medicine.
It is Fabian’s belief that marijuana alone is not enough; its use needs to be combined with other types of therapy. To that end, he’s starting Veterans for Healing, a nonprofit organization that will pay for veterans to undergo a 30- to 60-day treatment program in a lodge on Cranberry Island in rural New Brunswick. There, they’ll have access to hyperbolic oxygen therapy, neuro-feedback therapy and cranial-sacro-massage therapy. The retreat will also include a sweat lodge, music studio and gym, along with programs for yoga, fishing, art therapy, swimming and primitive camping. He hopes to open it later this year.
“The problem with a lot of vets is that they’re isolating—it’s part of PTSD,” Fabian says. “The army let them down, the military let them down, and then they take off to the woods and do whatever. They need something to be a part of to clean their act back up. We’re not saying we have a cure, but we have a better chance of increasing your quality of life than anything I’ve seen.”
THE VAPOR CORP
About 500 meters from the MFT office is the local outpost of the Royal Canadian Legion. Its official badge, featuring a maple leaf, a royal crown and the Latin motto Memoriam Eorum Retinebimus (“We Will Remember Them”), is displayed prominently on the sky-blue building. A Korean War–era C1 105mm Howitzer is parked out front.
Fabian visited the Canadian Legion a few times, but he was looking for something more than booze, darts and grin-and-bear-it stoicism. Now, thanks to the recent installation of an onsite vapor lounge, MFT presents an alternative for younger vets who choose pot over alcohol as their preferred social lubricant and self-administered medicant.
“When you go in the old Legion, you still feel like you’re out of place,” says Trevor Bungay who retired from the armed forces in 2014 after 17 years. “They still see marijuana as Woodstock and they just can’t get it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some people there that get it, but they’d never come out and say it, because they don’t want to ruffle feathers. This is the new Legion, let’s face it, right? If you wanna feel comfortable, smoke your marijuana and talk to people who know what you’re going through, where else are you going to go?”
Trevor did seven tours—Bosnia, Haiti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and four deployments to Afghanistan. The first time he was shot at, in Kandahar, he just stood there in a daze as bullets hit the dirt around him like raindrops.
“I was laughing with the guy next to me like, ‘This is the real deal. Someone is trying to kill us,’” he remembers. He volunteered to go back to Afghanistan and rose through the ranks to become a sergeant, in charge of 40 men. Coming home after his fourth deployment, Trevor knew something was wrong with him. The VAC told him the darkness was normal and it would pass. It didn’t. His friends started killing themselves. He was eating 12-15 OxyContins a day. One night he found himself sitting on his couch with a rifle and a bottle of whiskey, not expecting to ever see morning again. He dropped the gun, waking up his wife who dragged him to the hospital. Having served with Fabian in Afghanistan, Trevor trusted him enough to try cannabis therapy. Today, Trevor runs Trauma Healing Center in Nova Scotia, a program similar to MFT.
“If it wasn’t for marijuana,” he insists, “I would be dead. One hundred percent.”
THE DIVIDED STATES
The obvious question is whether there will ever be a similarly progressive program for American vets. There’s a meme floating around on social media right now that reads, “If Congress committed suicide at the same rate as veterans, there would be no one left after 25 days.” An average of 22 American vets kill themselves every day. It’s a white-hot crisis the scandal-scarred Department of Veterans Affairs has proven incapable of stemming. Some VA doctors turn a blind eye to marijuana use, but others have made patients choose between marijuana and their prescribed medications.
The Veterans Equal Access Act is a bill sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that, if passed, would allow VA doctors in medical states to sign the paperwork needed to qualify vets for medical marijuana. (As federal employees, both veterans and VA doctors are currently subject to federal laws prohibiting cannabis). And while this legislation would be a start, only 23 out of the 50 states have legalized medical marijuana. Florida’s vets did not go to war for Mickey Mouse and the Marlins alone-— they did it for America. A national problem needs a national solution.
Every 65 minutes, a veteran takes his own life. The time for a legal, moral or clinical debate about medical marijuana has passed. If it helps even a fraction of vets recover, it’s the VA’s moral responsibility to help them gain access. Soldiers don’t choose their wars. The least we can do is allow them to choose their peace.
Special thanks to Trevor Bungay, Lloyd Farmer, Matt Ferris, Kevin O’Neil, Cory Pike and Vince Rigby for helping me understand.