Iraq War Veterans Turn to Marijuana for Managing PTSD Symptoms

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 19 | Posted Jan. 25, 2012

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Jason Mays returned from Iraq with PTSD in 2004.

Jason Mays is the first to admit that he has a bad attitude. “I’m an asshole trying not to be an asshole,” says the 28-year-old West Oak Lane native. “That would probably be the best way to put it.”

Since returning from his tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, the war vet has been fighting an intense battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety condition triggered by a terrifying event that produces flashbacks, nightmares and fear. Mays is one of up to 20 percent of returning vets that Veterans Affairs estimates suffer from PTSD.

He first realized something was wrong on the plane ride home from Iraq. It’d been more than a year since he’d seen American soil and as the commercial jet approached the runway at Kennedy airport in New York, Mays glanced out the window. “I remember looking … at the people taking out bags and stuff like that, and I thought to myself, ‘Why are they letting so many Iraqis near our plane?’” He immediately found himself back in the survival mode he’d employed during time at war. He took a deep breath. “I had to tell myself that they are not Iraqis.”

It was just the beginning of a long struggle to reclaim his civilian life. “It feels like I’m two different people,” says Mays, coughing every two to three minutes due to a severe lung problem he developed when an Iraqi sulfur plant burned down and he breathed in the fumes. “I want to go out of the house, but my body wants nothing to do with it. My body is shaking; it’s scared, and I’m thinking to myself: ‘But this is why you need to leave the house. You need to do this and that.’ But when I put it into motion I think, ‘No. It’s scary out there.’”

“People tend to tell me I look around a lot, or look nervous, or not enjoying what I’m doing,” he continues. “But I’m not concerned about enjoying what I’m doing. I’m concerned about being able to continue to, basically, stay alive.”

Mays says he’s tried a number of medications and treatments for his PTSD, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which, according to the VA, “can help change how you react to memories of your trauma.” Other forms of therapy teach the brain to focus on the trauma and learn to deal with it in a rational way. So far, he says, “nothing’s cured me or anything. I’ve been taking what I can from each thing.”

But Mays may never get the remedy he’s seeking. “One of [the orderlies at the VA hospital] once told me that no one gets cured of PTSD. He said, ‘Everyone I see here comes back, or they go to another inpatient facility.’

While there may not be a cure for PTSD, some vets have turned to marijuana for relief. Amy Herrera, who splits her time between Delaware and West Philly, says her stint in the Air Force exacerbated her already existing PTSD from childhood trauma. Now, the 29 year old says marijuana is the one thing that can calm her nerves—or, as she puts it, when she’s high, it’s the only time she feels like she doesn’t want to rip anyone’s head off.

Herrera says her self-medicated treatment is doing what all the prescription drugs never could. She’s so convinced of the drug’s effectiveness that she successfully lobbied Delaware State Rep. Barbieri to put PTSD on that state’s medical marijuana bill after testifying before the Veteran’s committee on women’s health-care issues in the military.

And according to researchers who have been able to legally address the issue, marijuana is an effective remedy for symptoms of PTSD.

“There is a growing body of evidence which equivocally demonstrates the cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid—they abbreviate it ECS—can result in anti-depressive behavior,” says Jahan Marcu, a Temple University Ph.D candidate in cell biology (He notes that he does not speak for Temple). Marcu says that, according to already published research, the right amount of cannabinoids cannot only detach someone suffering from PTSD from their memory, but completely eliminate it. Essentially, the negative symptoms associated with marijuana use—in this case, loss of memory—may prove to be exactly what vets need.

Research conducted by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist, shows this to be true. In an experiment done by Mechoulam, mice given an electronic shock after hearing a certain noise forgot that shock after being exposed to the correct level of cannabinoids. “Mice without cannabinoid systems simply never forget,” according to an article written by Dr. Mechoulam. “They continue to cringe at the noise indefinitely.”

“Some people think that forgetting is a really bad thing, that you shouldn’t forget anything. But it’s hardwired in our system. Forgetting is just as important as remembering,” says Marcu. “If I remembered every face I saw on SEPTA this morning, conceptually, my brain would burst, you know, trying to remember all that information. It’s important to have a system that can get rid of information you don’t need or is harmful to you.”

Conducting more research on this might prove difficult. In April 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved testing of medical marijuana to be conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. The subjects of the study: 50 war veterans suffering from PTSD. Oddly, before the study could get off the ground, it was blocked by the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS oversees the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is the only agency which can legally supply the drug to the FDA. MAPS is currently fighting that decision in court.

“This is in the face of FDA approval, and this is not the first time,” says Ed Pane, a certified addictions counselor and Board member at Pennsylvanians For Medical Marijuana. “This drug had been singled out by the government. Research studies which prove its danger are permitted, but not research studies that could prove its advocacy.”

As an advocate, Pane says he’d like to see the research done. But as a social worker, what he resents is “the blocking of this for no apparent reason other than political.”

“Veterans have been asked to sacrifice for their country,” says Jim Miller, of the advocacy group New Jersey For Medical Marijuana. “They’ve been asked to do things and be in situations that have caused them harm and may have caused a disability of sorts. It affects their families, their friends, it affects so many people. You’ve gone and fought for your country, yet you have to come back and fight your country, maybe for your own life.”

Joining the Army was a no-brainer for Mays. It was something his father had encouraged him to do for most of his life. “He would always give me these different scenarios,” Mays says of his dad. He was “always trying to prepare me, saying, ‘You can’t have an umbrella in the army,’ so he would take my umbrella and make me walk in the rain.” In February 2001, at the age of 18, Mays enlisted.

Then on Sept. 11, a week before Mays was set to begin basic training, he got a call from his dad telling him the Pentagon and World Trade Center had been attacked. A year and a half later, Mays was in Kuwait at Camp Pennsylvania, a base for the initial invasion of Baghdad, awaiting orders. It was there he received a rude awakening of what war would be like.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 19 of 19
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1. Duncan20903 said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 10:00AM

“It's amazing that there's anyone skeptical of the assertion that cannabis can help people to learn to forget.”

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2. malcolm kyle said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 11:23AM

“Prohibition bears many strong and startling similarities to Torquemada­’s inquisition­, it’s supporters are servants of tyranny and hate who’s sole purpose is to make the rest of us suffer their putrid legacy of incalculable waste and destruction.

Prohibition engendered black market profits are obscenely huge. Remove this and you remove the ability to bribe or threaten any government official or even whole governments. The argument that legalized regulation won’t severely cripple organized crime is truly bizarre. Of course, the bad guys won’t just disappear, but if you severely diminish their income, you also severely diminish their power. The proceeds from theft, extortion, pirated goods etc. are a drop in the ocean compared to what can be earned by selling prohibited/unregulated drugs in a black market estimated to be worth 400,000 million dollars. The immense illegal capital, gifted through prohibition, is what gives these criminal cartels and terrorists power. Power that has allow”

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3. Joseph Tolman said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 11:44AM

“The creed of the prohibitionist: "Use the soldiers while you can, when they no longer serve your purpose, screw 'em they're just criminals!"”

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4. Paula B. Shore, D.O. said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 06:42PM

“Marijuana not being legal, is perhaps the biggest hipocracy of the FDA and DEA. Hundreds, if not thousands of drugs are released for sale, long before there is actual proof of doing no harm. How many pharmaceuticals are ripped from the market as they start to destroy and kill people??? Marijuana has NEVER killed anyone. It doesn't destroy your liver or your kidneys. It prevents dementia and tumor growth, even lung tumors caused by cigarette smoking. How many people get behind the wheel on a daily basis, while using opiates (Vicodin,Norco, etc.) without being threatened with a felony conviction, unless they are driving erratically. Marijuana use does not cause this. If anything, people drive more slowly and carefully. The reason it's not legal by now, is that Obama has allowed the pharmaceutical companies to rule his world, so now, we're stuck with this too.

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5. bob aveyard said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 04:21AM

“MARIJUANA= LESS VICODIN,EVERYBODY KNOWS IT.THAT'S THE RUB BIG PHARM SPENDING BIG BUX TO DELAY LEGALIZATION TILL THEY HAVE IT IN THEIR INVENTORY AT PREMIUM PRICES.OCCUPY TILL IT'S DONE!”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 03:16PM

“the gov. wants soliders to risk their lives fighting in bullshit wars and then when those soldiers come home with mental issues, the gov. does nothing to help them.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:26PM

“My son has PTSD and a TBI. He has short term memory loss from the TBI. He smoke pot everyday almost all day.It does help the PTSD but it does no good for the short term memory loss. DAMN WAR!!”

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8. Elaine Roach said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:34PM

“Can't blame this one on Obama...remember the "War on drugs?" Hmmmm. Long before Obama, who is struggling to loosen the hold that big corps, big pharmas and lobbyists of all breeds have on the government. Write letters, send telegrams, make phone calls, email, whatever, to communicate to your Reps (even though the House is a JOKE), Senators, Governors, etc. Make your opinions heard!”

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9. CombatVetIraq said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:38PM

“Medical marijuana has been the most helpful medication I've found for my TBI and PTSD symptoms. Hands down.”

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10. intheknow said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:44PM

“So they're suddenly discovering what Vietnam vets have known for 40 years?”

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11. Vetof05-06 said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 08:11PM

“As an Iraq Veteran myself. I find myself in this same situation. To bad my state doesn't recognize it at all. The FEDS and FDA need to realize that people need it for medical purposes and not "just" recreational use.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 08:23PM

“although i compleetly agree with the legalization of marijuana, the use to help and cope with PTSD symptoms is irrational. it is known that chemicals in marijuana can loosen certain repressors in the brain, thus allowing the users PTSD symptoms to actually increase. this is, obvisoly, not in all cases, but it can happen. i mean, whatever works i guess, but i just know that one of my friends who has pretty bad PTSD has a tendency to go through intense anxiety attacks due to their PTSD symptoms after smoking, but it doesnt happen all the time, depends on the mood the user is in before smoking.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 10:22PM

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorders can happen to anyone other than post pregnant women and veterans. The only reason why we hear a lot about it is cause the media focuses their attention on veterans. However, there are more Americans suffering from PTSD than Americans. Quite a few traumatic things happened in my life including recently. And I find that it really does work for me, however dealers and middle men charge so much that I have to go without. These dealers take advantage, that's why I feel they should legalize it for medical purposes. I'd be happier smoking than drinking alcohol and possibly killing someone. Alcohol cause depression, liver problems, poisoning, dementia. Most of the time you get so drunk that you fall and break a leg or hit your head. Marijuana does the opposite. It actually does more good and no bad. What really needs to happens is for all Americans come together and take over Washington. It happens in other countries why not here.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 10:22PM

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorders can happen to anyone other than post pregnant women and veterans. The only reason why we hear a lot about it is cause the media focuses their attention on veterans. However, there are more Americans suffering from PTSD than Americans. Quite a few traumatic things happened in my life including recently. And I find that it really does work for me, however dealers and middle men charge so much that I have to go without. These dealers take advantage, that's why I feel they should legalize it for medical purposes. I'd be happier smoking than drinking alcohol and possibly killing someone. Alcohol cause depression, liver problems, poisoning, dementia. Most of the time you get so drunk that you fall and break a leg or hit your head. Marijuana does the opposite. It actually does more good and no bad. What really needs to happens is for all Americans come together and take over Washington. It happens in other countries why not here.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 11:05PM

“Anonymous #12, your friend needs an indica strain, it sounds like they got too much sativa. Some pot makes anxiety worse but there are so many different kinds.
.........
Elaine Roach, oh yes we can too blame Obama. Legalization has been the most popular question in his "Town Hall" meetings and YouTube events, and 9 TIMES NOW he has ignored or derided the question. He is in a place to help, he said in his campaign he wanted it brought to the table, and now he's the one shutting the gates in our faces.”

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16. havok said... on Jan 27, 2012 at 06:18AM

“As a disabled combat veteran i have to use marijuana to control pain, medication side effects and anxiety. If i didn't i would more then likely be dead. Until the medical/drug companies are made non profit and the FTC laws are changed, herbal cures will never be recognized because greed rules this nation. sad but true. My little brother has to use weed to control his Multiple sclerosis that he has had for 22 years now, it is the only thing besides massive doses of steroids, that make him human on a daily basis. SHAME ON THE FDA AND DRUG COMPANIES, MAY THEY REAP WHAT THEY SOW!”

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17. Anonymous said... on Jan 27, 2012 at 01:35PM

“My name is John and I have been suffering from PTSD for ten years now. I have tried many different therapies, including EMDR, hypnosis and a multitude of medications. I have been hospitalized 6 times in the past 9 years for PTSD and suicidal ideation. I write about my struggles on my blog and I try to describe exactly what it is like to be suffering from PTSD.

You can read what it is like for someone with PTSD here.

http://veteransguide.blogspot.com/2011/10/what-is-it-like-to-have-ptsd.html”

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18. terry696 said... on Jan 30, 2012 at 02:11PM

“I am a Nam Vet with a CIB, many other medals, and PTSD and it only took me from 1993 when I 1st put in for PTSD to 2008 for the VA to give me a 100% ratting and I know that a little med pot helps Ohio will have my volt and any help that I can give”

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19. Anonymous said... on Jan 11, 2014 at 07:57PM

“Does anyone know of any support groups for Iraq Veterans in Philadelphia Pa? Trying to help a loved one who has PTSD and he refuses to talk to anyone. Any advice,”

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