Cannabis has been shown to effectively treat Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and – for some veterans – cannabis has been a natural option for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cannabis often relieves or lessens PTSD symptoms without the side effects of prescription medicines commonly prescribed by doctors working for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Medical cannabis for treating PTSD is now legal in Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, and New Mexico, according to Procon.org, but Colorado voted it down in July of 2015 – despite testimony from pioneering doctor Sue Sisley, the recipient of a $2 million grant to study the effects of cannabis on PTSD.
Colorado is home to 7 military installations which concentrate on counter terrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterinsurgency, disaster relief, and US defense – the total income from Department of Defense (DOD) employment in El Paso, Arapahoe, and Weld counties alone is $10.5 billion. According to the VA, 12 out of every 100 Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Gulf War vets have PTSD symptoms – although the true numbers may be much higher, since not all veterans seek help for their symptoms. In August of 2015, five veterans with PTSD sued Colorado for blocking legal medical cannabis treatments for veterans; the case is ongoing. Taking matters into their own hands, the Veteran Farmers Alliance recently handed out $1,400 worth of free cannabis and cannabis edibles to veterans with PTSD in Colorado Springs.
What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is fear and anxiety which affects a person after they’ve experienced traumatic events. PTSD is not limited to veterans, but veterans frequently show symptoms due to the high-stress combat situations they encounter during military service. If the anxiety, stress, and fear do not go away, the person may have PTSD. Some common symptoms are the persistent reliving of traumatic events through bad memories, flashbacks, or nightmares; avoiding situations that trigger bad memories; negative changes in beliefs or feelings (guilt, fear, or shame) while avoiding activities the person once enjoyed; and hyperarousal (jitters, constant alertness, and low concentration ability). These feelings can lead to depression, increased anxiety, and shame, as well as employment, relationship, and physical problems. VA doctors often prescribe anti-depressants (SSRIs) and antipsychotics, but many veterans report that these drugs have unpleasant side effects and do not get to the root of the problem, only the secondary symptoms.
Pharmaceuticals vs. Cannabis for Veterans with PTSD
Cannabis does not have the laundry list of side effects that SSRIs and antipsychotic pharmaceuticals do; in fact, cannabis’ side effects are nearly nonexistent. A 2009 study demonstrated a 72% reduction in otherwise untreatable nightmares for 47 PTSD sufferers using the endocannabinoid receptor agonist nabilone. The reason that cannabinoids (which naturally exist in the brain) work for bad memories and nightmares is because the cannabinoid system in the human mind is “integrally related to memory, specifically to memory extinction” according to Veterans for Medical Marijuana.
Hunter Garth of Denver’s Iron Protection Group (IPG) – a company whose employees are mostly veterans, many of whom have suffered from PTSD – stated that cannabis allows some veterans with PTSD to lead fully-functional, productive, and happy lives while dulling the severity and intensity of recurring memories and nightmares associated with the disorder.
Why Can’t All Veterans Access Cannabis for PTSD Symptoms?
The problem, as usual, lies with the difference between state and federal laws; the VA is a federal organization, and as such employs doctors who are reluctant to prescribe medical marijuana for fear of losing their jobs, their practices, or putting patients at risk for losing military benefits. Testing for drugs at the VA is a normal part of physicals for veterans on medications, according to Jolie Lee of USA Today. Once cannabis medicating has been admitted or requested by veterans, doctors can “modify” prescriptions drastically or refuse to prescribe other pharmaceuticals on the basis of VHA Directive 1005, the opioid pain care agreement. This agreement is publicly available at VA.gov and requires patients to “take the drugs only as directed; adhere to drug testing; not seek early refills or replacements for lost or stolen drugs; not use illegal drugs; and other provisions as needed.” Up until the present day, cannabis studies have been focused on a negative addiction angle. However, the studies being conducted in Colorado and Arizona today approach the medicine from a new perspective, and will produce markedly different results.
PTSD and Veterans’ Employment
The opportunity for veterans who have PTSD to work can be limited, due to the severity of symptoms for some. The 2014 Census Bureau reported that 12% of the 21.8 million US armed forces veterans that year suffered from PTSD at some point, and that 33% of all Gulf War-era veterans have a service-related disability that may affect getting a job, keeping a job, their relationships, or even daily functioning in civilian society.
Working for Change: Iron Protection Group Security of Denver
Since veterans with severe PTSD often have problems finding and keeping employment, the mission of Iron Protection Group Security (IPG) in Denver, Colorado, is a pioneering example of how to successfully employ veterans while serving a community. The company was started by Caleb Patton, Cory Aguillard, and Hunter Garth, three men who served together in Afghanistan. Two more veterans, Mat Hanson and Glenn Weatherly, helped build the company from the ground up. IPG provides veterans with dependable security jobs that use their military training and background to protect people and their businesses – and the majority of IPG’s business is in protecting the cash, product, property, and businesses of Colorado’s cannabis entrepreneurs.
According to Garth, the original vision of the company was to bring veterans together for careers that would use their singular skills and abilities, while positively impacting security in the cannabis industry. Garth noted that having a police-like security guard in front of dispensaries and other cannabis businesses was not attractive for customers; cannabis is legal in Colorado and purchasing it shouldn’t feel like a felony. Today IPG employs over 100 people, 97% of whom are veterans; Garth also revealed that over 80% of the company’s administration has suffered from PTSD. The company hires people with extensive military experience as discreet security operators, integrating them into retail environments through training. The job is dangerous, but so far it hasn’t been as difficult as armed combat; as Garth noted, criminal situations are always a possibility and IPG is always ready during the transportation of cash and cannabis products.
How Can Working Veterans Get Through PSTD to Lead Productive Lives?
For Garth, medicinal cannabis has dulled painful memories, and made his life easier and more enjoyable, but he believes that cannabis alone can’t solve PTSD problems. Garth had a few choice words for MassRoots on how to get through the difficulty of living with PTSD. First, Garth stated that he “[c]an’t tell vets enough that the single most important piece of transitioning from military to civilian life is not doing it alone.” Garth believes cannabis is not the only solution, but that veterans with PTSD must recognize it as a problem first, and seek medical help. Therapy is an integral part of decreasing PTSD symptoms, and basic needs such as having a job, providing for their families, and building positive relationships with family and friends can speed the healing process for veterans. Without these basic necessities, PTSD sufferers may not be helped by cannabis. Demonstrating his commitment to this vision, Garth requires his security employees to always keep their VA appointments, and practices daily PTSD outreach within the company, resulting in an extremely tight-knit and supportive employment environment that all veterans deserve.
Overcoming PTSD with the Help of Cannabis
Garth and his coworkers discuss PTSD symptoms and other issues related to military service and daily life openly. Garth recommends veterans find something to care for and be committed to, keeping their minds in the present and the future. Garth, Patton, Aguillard, Hanson and Weatherly found their passion in IPG, and enjoy serving an industry they believe in. Garth believes in the cannabis industry as a way to heal veterans, not only through decreased PTSD symptoms and better lives, but through sustained, dependable employment which uses their skill sets to the best advantage and allows the healing to continue. Garth believes that cultivating cannabis could be extremely beneficial for PTSD sufferers – the action of nurturing plants can efficiently combat feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness. For veterans with PTSD, seeing the productivity of growing cannabis and growing businesses, as well as using their learned skill sets and acquiring new ones, is an excellent place to start after military service. In the military and in life, no one can go it alone – cannabis and employment opportunities like those provided by IPG and other cannabis companies are the path to the PTSD revolution.
This post was originally published on April 7, 2016, it was updated on March 15, 2017.