January 25, 2012
Iraq War Veterans Turn to Marijuana for Managing PTSD Symptoms
By: Randy LoBasso
Jason Mays and Amy Herrera are among the many veterans struggling to find effective treatments for PTSD. While there may not yet be a cure, marijuana could provide these suffering patients with significant relief—yet the federal government so far continues to block MAPS’ efforts to conduct research for making it a legal prescription medicine. The Philadelphia Weekly reports on how researchers, doctors, and patients alike are calling on the government to allow the research.
Originally appearing here.
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.
Within his first two weeks in Kuwait, his unit suffered the first fragging incident of the war, in which Hasan Karim Akbar tossed four grenades into three tents at the camp, killing an Army captain and injuring 15 other soldiers. That same night, Mays says, a British plane was shot down near their camp and a female soldier went AWOL in front of everyone. “She just walked away and she didn’t come back,” he says. “That made me realize how stressful this is for people. Because you just saw right there, someone who couldn’t handle what was going on around them. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Iraq was no different. Assigned to Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq and, as fate would have it, Philadelphia’s sister city, Mays worked as part of a maintenance company, and later as a prison guard. “Have you ever seen one of those post-apocalyptic movies where it’s five years later and everything’s gone horribly wrong?” he asks. “I always said [Mosul] was like that. Like Philly, if Philadelphia ever lost cable television and lost all power.” From there, he says, the entire tour was about survival.
Mays says that as soon as American troops seized control, Mosul turned into a wasteland. The police had been disbanded. The traffic lights didn’t work. Families retreated to their homes. “That’s what sucked about the no police thing and no traffic laws,” he says. “You’re bumper-to-bumper and you’re told to look everywhere for someone that can get you. I drove a lot in the beginning. It was always nerve-wracking to look around and know you can’t cover every spot. Just like you can’t drive through Center City [Philadelphia] and look at every side, 360 degrees, where people could attack you from.”
During an on-base training mission months later, in which he simulated guarding an Iraqi national, Mays had a flashback which almost ended in violence. “It was literally putting me back in that situation,” he says. “It was a matter of knowing the difference between training and real life … Legitimately, I knew I wasn’t in Iraq, but I didn’t understand why I was doing the mission where I was.” When he came to, he was being restrained by fellow soldiers. He didn’t immediately seek treatment, though, he just thought things were a bit off.
“At first, they thought the only people who got PTSD were rape victims,” Mays says, referring to the several decades it took the military, government and mental-health professionals to come to grips with the legitimacy of the disorder. “Then it was rape victims and Vietnam vets. But that was it. Then, they only saw PTSD as coming from a really bad situation, like [Iraqi city and spot of intense battle] Fallujah or something.” It was, therefore, tough to prove you had PTSD until an inevitable flashback or violent outbreak occurred.
He was scheduled to go back to Iraq in 2006, but was medically retired before it could happen. Shortly after he returned home in 2004, he attended a two-day seminar to prepare for re-entry into society—but that was the extent of the military’s assistance. After that, he was on his own. “The army teaches you to repress sickness of any kind,” Mays says. “Especially mental stuff.” So when he got back to Philadelphia, he remained suspicious of everyone around him, always ready for an attack. “I feel like I should be doing things like I did them over there [in Iraq],” he says. “But I’m not over there. I’m over here. Things should technically be different, but they’re not.”
Herrera’s story differs from Mays’ in that she was never sent overseas by the military. She instead worked as a weather observer from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, communicating with pilots overseas, often to locate correct bombing sites. And even though she never pulled a trigger, today she feels just as guilty for her actions as if she had. “It was just work. Just another day at the office,” Herrera says. “You’re brainwashed to think about what you have to do to get your piece done, and you’re not thinking about all the collateral damage or actually thinking about what you’re doing … Like [the video game] Call of Duty, they’re just pushing buttons on a remote, right? Well, that’s what I was doing: Looking at satellites, telling people where to drop their bomb. There’s a team that drops a bomb. It’s not just one person.”
After leaving the Air Force, Herrera got a job lobbying for Boeing. That’s when the PTSD really began kicking in. “It was like the rage wants to come out of you. I’d be sitting in meetings and I wanted to punch people in the face. I wanted to jump outside of myself. I wanted to scream at people,” she says. “I used to literally go into [an empty] office, which was right next door to mine, close the door and scream for 15 minutes. That was probably the first realization that I had a serious problem and I needed to solve it.”
Now, she says, she plans to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Delaware that will cater to veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to a medical treatment facility, she says, she’s looking to create a space for veterans to live communally, and hopes to offer yoga and potlucks.
Miller, the advocate for New Jersey For Medical Marijuana, says medical marijuana may not save every returning veteran suffering from PTSD—it probably won’t save most of them. But the least the country should do is allow testing to see if it can have a positive reaction to the condition.
The VA has gotten more funding for PTSD treatments, and has been increasing its public awareness of the disorder. Even President Obama has put a focus on the issue.
While recognition and treatment of PTSD is still relatively new to the American military and populace, research shows the disorder is responsible for an attempted suicide by a veteran once every 80 minutes. On a recent Saturday night inside the Moonstone Arts Center in the Gayborhood, hordes of military fatigue jackets are draped across the backs of creaky steel chairs. It’s the launch of Warrior Writers’ third book of art and writing, created exclusively by war veterans. Based out of Philadelphia, this project-turned-organization, provides an art, writing and social sanctuary for returning veterans. And most of the vets in attendance are here to read a contribution to the collection. One writer, Michael Day, reveals to the audience that he’d been garnering the courage to commit suicide off his balcony one night when Lovella Calica, the founder of Warrior Writers, texted him, asked him to contribute to the collection, and unknowingly changed his mind about jumping. “I am afraid I am going to die alone, who is going to want to be with me inside my messed up head,” he reads, “and dealing with the horrible things I think about myself.”
Mays is in the audience. “That was a lot to take in,” he says, adding that he just tries to take it as it comes. “I try to be realistic about the situation. It’s very hard to retrain your brain after it’s been put in its own way … The person I grew up to be in the Army was very good for that situation. But I’m out of the Army and not all of that is acceptable.”
In the meantime, he’s keeping busy, working with Warrior Writers and the Mural Arts Program on a veterans mural that will go up in West Philadelphia. He’s also attending the Community College of Philadelphia, where he’s studying for a career as an engineer. To him, it’s a career that makes sense PTSD-wise. “It’s a job that doesn’t involve people,” he says. “And a lot of the people who are in it are, oddly enough, very anti-social.”
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