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.
PW's Summer Guide 2014