The statistic is staggering: at least 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the US, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Suicide is almost always brought on by physical and psychological pain, both of which veterans, as a group, are well acquainted with. Many veterans return home injured, and/or carrying symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) –– which include nightmares, flashbacks to a traumatic event, severe anxiety and trouble sleeping. PTSD plays a significant role in the tendency toward suicide according to the VA. The VA also found that between 11 and 20 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans experience PTSD in a given year, and that 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans “were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s.”
While the rate of veteran suicides is alarming, perhaps more upsetting is the fact that the medicines currently prescribed to veterans to mitigate PTSD and pain symptoms fall short and, in many cases, actually worsen psychological problems. Suicide is actually listed as a possible side effect on drugs regularly prescribed through the VA to treat veterans. Often, those veterans are prescribed handfuls of pills that ultimately numb not just painful feelings, but all emotion. This leads to a commonly reported feeling of detachment and loneliness often called the “zombie effect.”
The tragic irony of this situation is that successful PTSD and pain medications, free of negative side effects, could already exist. More and more veterans are seeking refuge in both MDMA and cannabis. While both are federally prohibited, they have each proven to successfully mitigate a variety of problems that plague vets.
FDA-approved studies assessing the safety and efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD and anxiety, sponsored by the independent nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), have reported positive results. Statistically significant improvements have been observed across the board in all cases, and to date just one drug-related “serious adverse event” has occurred out of 1,080 research subjects who have taken MDMA, according to the protocols for a newly-proposed clinical trial in Marin, California.
While the federal government has a decades-old blockade in place which prevents all non-government scientific research on cannabis, countless personal accounts from veterans describe miraculous healing benefits from the herb. There is a growing global movement amongst veterans to gain access to cannabis for sufferers of PTSD and war-related injuries.
The illegal status and stigma associated with MDMA and cannabis makes advocating for them a risky endeavor –– especially for veterans who in many states risk losing their VA health benefits if they admit to using either. Despite the dangers, a few courageous veterans are speaking up honestly and publically in the name of the only substances they’ve found to relieve their suffering.
Here is what five of those vets have had to say about why they’re risking their reputations and fighting for access to an alternative medicine:
1. Perry Parks
Perry Parks, a Vietnam War vet from North Carolina, is heading up the national movement to connect vets with cannabis. Before discovering the natural remedy, he tried dozens of pharmaceutical pills to treat his PTSD. He is the former president of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network, which focuses on medical marijuana policy reform in the state, and continues to work with the organization as a legislative liaison. In a 2013 interview he told me he thinks of his work advocating for and educating people about cannabis as his God-given duty and moral prerogative as a Christian:
“Sometimes you have to go against the grain,” he said. “I told my pastor, just like you feel you were called to be a pastor, I feel I was called as a Christian to tell the truth [about medical marijuana]… It’s not a sin to be ignorant, but if somebody gives you a chance to open your eyes, then it is one of the greatest sins not to be willing to open your eyes.”
2. Casey Robinson
Casey Robinson of Santa Cruz, CA served in the Marine Corps from March 2001 to March 2006, doing three tours in Iraq. After he was injured, he was honorably discharged and referred to the VA for treatment, which consisted of a cocktail of pills that rendered him numb and zombie-like. While participating in a cycling program with other vets, he learned many of them were using cannabis instead of pills to mitigate their pain and other issues. He followed suit, and had so much luck with the plant that he ended up founding a cooperative called California Veterans Medicine (Cal Vet Meds), which provides medical marijuana at no cost to service-connected injured veterans. In a 2013 interview, Robinson told me:
“[Cannabis is] a good alternative medicine and vets are the perfect candidates. We don’t really want to get on the VA track. We don’t want to have all these crazy meds, and the option of [medical cannabis]… is freeing.”
James (name kept anonymous for privacy), a veteran combat medic who served in Afghanistan, and a freshman at the University of Colorado, told the student-run news outlet CU Independent about his experience with MDMA-assisted therapy. He had tried every treatment the Department of Defense sponsors for PTSD –– he took pills, went to therapy, and even bought a puppy –– but saw little improvement. Eventually he enrolled in a study in Boulder sponsored by MAPS, which looked at the efficacy of MDMA to treat PTSD. For the study he participated in MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, which he now describes as the best treatment he “ever had” for his PTSD:
“A good way to describe it is that I felt like I was in a cave, trying to get out, but I didn’t have any light,” he said. “So I was just feeling around the walls, getting turned around, and getting even more lost. But with the MDMA sessions, it was like the therapist was my guide and the MDMA was a flashlight. With those resources, I could get out of the cave I’d been lost in for so long…It blew me away, how effective it was…It gave me my life back. It was like a burden being lifted off my back for the first time in years. I could feel. I could love. It helped me more than I can even put into words.”
4. Tony Macie
It took Tony Macie years to admit to himself that he had PTSD, despite a formal diagnosis and a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, as Dara Colwell reported for AlterNet in 2013. In 2007 Macie returned from serving as an army sergeant in Iraq and “struggled to readjust to civilian life.” He tried therapy and various prescription drugs, but nothing helped until he found an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study led by Michael Mithoefer.
After participation in the study, Macie was able to stop taking all of his prescribed medications. He said:
“It was a paradigm shift. I want all vets to have the same tool at their disposal.”
5. Augustine Stanley
Kristen Gwynne wrote an article for AlterNet in 2013, detailing the struggle amongst veterans with PTSD to access marijuana. In it she told the story of an Iraq War veteran named Augustine Stanley. Stanley is an advocate for the Freedom to Choose campaign, which was launched by veterans, the Drug Policy Alliance, and elected officials. It “targets lawmakers, physicians, and employers to recognize marijuana as a safe, efficient alternative to other PTSD medications that may not work as well or cause troubling side effects.”
Stanley was fired from his job for being a legal medical marijuana patient in New Mexico (one of few states that recognize PTSD as a reason to prescribe medical marijuana), but stayed a part of the medical marijuana program because of the benefits he was experiencing.
On a press conference call he said, “Being a part of the medical marijuana program has given me all the joys of life back.” He said marijuana use allowed him to “wake up in the morning and do the things I used to enjoy, prior to being put on all those medications that leave me like a zombie.”