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The cannabis solution

How former military people are applying
pot to the struggle with PTSD
By Brenden Maisonneuve

Marijuana For Trauma was founded by Afghanistan veterans. (Photo by Brenden Maisonneuve)

WAR CHANGES a person, but, often, the veteran is the only one who can see it. And that can make it difficult to rejoin the world in peace time.

The effect of combat on the mind and emotions has had many names: shell shock in the First World War, and combat fatigue or war neuroses during the Second.

The name we use now is more clinical: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

For one in 10 Canadian soldiers who came home from Afghanistan, PTSD is their day-to-day reality, but the condition affects people in different ways. The effects are called indicators, and they can be difficult to treat. Sleep disorder is one indicator, and can be a massive challenge for people dealing with PTSD. Sufferers can be experiencing nightmares, or flashbacks that make them avoid sleep as much as possible – or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

The most common indicators are hyper-intensiveness and anger, says psychologist Ramona Gapp, who treats patients with PTSD.

‘The anxiety issues I was having definitely
were treated with cannabis’

There is no overall cure for PTSD; you can only deal with the symptoms. And this makes treating the indicators like threading a needle. The problem is that, during the threading, it’s not hard to create a knot. Finding medications that work together and don’t make the symptoms worse can be difficult.

Medical marijuana may offer new hope for PTSD sufferers, says Timothy Baxter, clinic manager of Marijuana for Trauma Edmonton, an organization founded by a pair of Afghanistan war veterans who suffer from PTSD, Fabian Henry and Mike Southwell.

Timothy Baxter Is a veteran of the Afghanistan War and Clinic Manager for Marijuana for Trauma Edmonton. (Brenden Maisonneuve)

“I started using cannabis to treat a lot of the anger I was having, when I came back from Afghanistan,” Baxter says.

“Some of the anxiety issues I was having definitely were treated with cannabis, and then generally, too, as an uplifting anti-depressant to get me out of the house and make me feel motivated to do anything.”

Henry and Southwell discovered through personal use of medical marijuana that it could help at least as a substitute for alcohol. They knew other veterans were struggling and set out to help. They started with veterans meetings in a Fredericton coffee house in 2013, and from there Marijuana for Trauma was born.

“Before there was even a business, it was just veterans helping veterans,” Baxter says. “Guys going door- to-door checking in on their buddies making sure they weren’t going to kill themselves.”

Marijuana for Trauma helps military veterans and first responders who are suffering PTSD by referring them to counsellors, psychologists, physicians and naturopaths. There are almost a dozen branches across the country. The one in Edmonton opened a year ago.

Traditionally, the drug of choice for most veterans was alcohol, says Baxter.

Like Henry and Southwell, Baxter started on his road to MFT with the army in Afghanistan.

When he came back, he says, he was full of anger and anxiety, and didn’t have any idea how to cope.

Alcohol wasn’t an option, he says, because he was studying at MacEwan and couldn’t study drunk, or go to class hung over.

‘ It was even a socially acceptable thing to say that you were
going to get wasted and pass out’

So, he decided to try pot, first as an antidepressant. The angry veteran became a happy, relaxed guy, who sleep without fear and wake up without a headache.

He got involved with MFT after he graduated and was working as a financial advisor. When he heard the clinic was coming to town he began volunteering.

“I actually helped build the front of the clinic, when there wasn’t really a budget for it yet,” he says.

Baxter says MFT isn’t a dispensary, and never presents marijuana as a miracle treatment that will end PTSD or solve all problems. The organization is a go-between that helps develop treatment that works for each person in need.

Clients must provide proof of their eligibility for a cannabis prescription. Then, they meet staff nurse and cannabinoid-therapy educator Kristin Stefanec, who is the guru of the strains and treatment methods.

She puts each patient through the intake form and screening, which she describes as “more thorough than people want us to be.”

The reason for being so thorough is to gather all the information a doctor might need to devise treatment, and to gather information that can help Stefanec identify strains to treat specific indicators, such as depression, anxiety, nightmares and aggression.

In rare cases a patient will be denied. THC, the main active ingredient in pot can aggravate some mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

Only when Stefanec and a doctor sign off will a patient can get a prescription, which most will fill through mail order.

The clinic also has a space for peer support where veterans suffering from PTSD can talk and help one another. (Brenden Maisonneuve)

The first step of the treatment doesn’t start with a big change in medication. The goal is to get the patient some rest by prescribing a strain of indica, which delivers  a “body high” rather than the “mind high” of sativa, the other main type of cannabis.

This type of marijuana has been called“in-da-couch,” because it has a calming effect on the mind and muscles.  It also helps produce dopamine, which helps regulate emotions and controls the brain’s pleasure centre. 

Stefanec says therapists want the veterans to rest and sleep because it plays a huge role in their recovery.

For the first three months, a gram of indica a day is typically the only prescribed treatment.

As for sativa, it contains more of the chemical THC, which is known for its psychoactive properties. It has been used to treat pain, and lack of appetite and nausea, as well as to reduce aggression. 

“When you absorb THC into the blood, it binds to the CB1 and the CB2 receptors in the brain, which releases anandamide,” Baxters ays. “Which is a molecule that gives the user a feeling of bliss. That’s really really great, if you’re trying to love something or just be friendly with someone, when you have that positive mindset. The cannabis gives you that.”

‘This is all about healing. You talk to someone,
they can barely leave their house’ 

Stefanec says Marijuana for Trauma doesn’t want to make any drastic changes to a veteran’s routine or medication in the first 90 days. Therapists just want the patients to decompress and adjust to the treatment.

“That’s the time for them to navigate their way and to find what works for them.”

From there, the treatment plan is tweaked to deal with specific indicators, and try out methods of ingestion that allow users to avoid the harmful effects of smoking.

The method of ingestion depends on the need. For quick bursts of medication that are needed right away to treat anxiety, MFT suggests vapourizing, which delivers the medication in seconds or minutes through the lungs.

Edibles, on the other hand, can take as long as an hour to kick in because the pot is absorbed slowly through the stomach and then processed by the liver before entering the blood stream. The pot can also be turned into an oil or butter for cooking or baking, or taken as a pill, which has the same long-acting effect, which is better suited to day day-to to-day use, without the need for multiple daily doses.

Often, marijuana is showcased as a panacea, or “miracle drug” that can be used in every situation. MFT, however, never tries to sell the miracle.

“If you’re not going to do the work, it’s not like cannabis is going to be a quick fix” Stefanec says.

But it does make it possible for a veteran to enjoy being with friends, get back into a routine, and see new people without scanning for threats,” she adds. 

“It’s certainly not a cure,” Baxter says. “It’s still a crutch. We understand that, but it helps a lot.”

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