Veterans Day and cannabis: Former soldiers discover ‘a plant ally’

Sam Laird
Nov 12, 2018

When Aaron Flynn returned home for good in 2004 after serving U.S. Marine Corps combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he suffered from sleep and anxiety issues related to PTSD. But, as with many veterans managing similar conditions, it wasn’t just PTSD that made day-to-day life difficult — doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals came with side effects that compounded his problems.

Finally, he found relief from another source: Cannabis. Indica strains helped him sleep at night without hours of grogginess the next morning, a common pharmaceutical side-effect. Hybrid strains helped manage hypervigilance and anxiety without the drawbacks of prescription meds.

[SEE ALSO: VETERANS DAY | Eaze announces 25% discount for all U.S. veterans]

“It really helped me turn things around and deal with some of the issues that I had to get on track and live a normal life,” Flynn, co-founder of the San Francisco-based cultivator and distributor Gold Seal, says today. “A lot of guys coming back were having the same issues I was, that these prescribed medications weren’t working, or were working in some ways but then also taking away parts of our personalities.”

Flynn is just one of a so-far unknowable but significant number of military veterans use cannabis medically. But many of these former soldiers find themselves using flower, topicals and edibles to manage their mental and physical health in a sort of shadowy in-between state, as the plant’s murky legal status and still-emerging legitimate market continue to evolve. Some vets fear disclosing cannabis use to their VA doctors, for example, for fear of losing benefits under federal prohibition.

A highly anticipated, first-of-its-kind clinical study led by Arizona scientist Dr. Sue Sisley could soon push crucial momentum behind easing veterans’ access to cannabis. Her triple-blind, placebo-controlled study of using cannabis to treat PTSD among veterans is nearing completion.

In the meantime, one thing is certain: Many, many veterans already know the plant to be powerful medicine.

‘This is a plant ally.’

Cannabis and the military have a longer history than many might realize. Recall, of course, the legendary image of soldiers in Vietnam smoking through a shotgun. But there are deeper roots, too — Dennis Peron, one of the medical marijuana movement’s earliest heroes, was an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam.

Today, a host of organizations help veterans access cannabis and use the plant as a nucleus of community and therapy. There’s the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance. The Veterans Cannabis Group. Weed for Warriors. The list goes on.

Ryan Miller is a former Marine who runs one such organization, called Operation Evac. Operation Evac works with veterans ranging from those who got out of the military just months ago to a 96-year-old who served in World War II. Miller says veterans in Operation Evac employ cannabis for everything from easing physical pain to aiding sleep to strengthening mental health and resiliency if they suffer from PTSD.

It also helps many veterans avoid physically addictive pharmaceutical opiates or using alcohol to self-medicate stress and anxiety. One of Miller’s favorite stories involves two photos texted to him from a convenience store by an Operation Evac member.

“The first picture was the beer fridge in the store with all the alcohol, then the next picture was of the center console of his car, showing he’d bought a Gatorade instead,” Miller says.

This illustrates one of cannabis’ chief advantages, says Chris Emerson, a Navy veteran and chemistry PhD who is now the CEO of Level Blends.

“These are healing compounds that are coming naturally from a plant,” Emerson says. “This is a plant ally.”

And when veterans find peace with help from the plant, they aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“If you come to one of our meetings or family outings and talk to a spouse or kids of these veterans, you will hear the same thing,” says Weed for Warriors CEO Sean Kiernan. “It’s, ‘Cannabis gave me my spouse back.’ Or ‘Cannabis gave me my mom or dad back.’ Or ‘Cannabis gave us our child back.'”

A final piece to the puzzle is making cannabis easier for veterans to access.

Affordability a primary concern.

The continued status of cannabis as a Schedule I drug and its illegality at the federal level are significant barriers to veteran access. Doctors at the Department of Veteran Affairs, for example, still aren’t allowed to recommend cannabis use to patients even in states where the plant is medically legal.

Hopes are high among many that Dr. Sisley’s study — the first of its kind to look at using cannabis for treating veterans with PTSD — will soon give more official legitimacy to what’s so far been a grassroots movement. Results of that study should be available in the coming months; Dr. Sisley told Eaze recently that “our final numbers in the pipeline are looking really promising.”

Along with legality limbo, there’s another significant barrier to cannabis access for many veterans: Cost.

“Affordability is a primary concern for a lot of veterans, who are often on fixed incomes for disability,” says Miller. “Opiates from the VA are free. Jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge is free. But cannabis is definitely not.”

It’s with this affordability issue in mind that Eaze recently launched a new program offering a 25% discount to U.S. military veterans on products purchased on the Eaze cannabis platform. Eaze CEO Jim Patterson is himself an Air Force veteran. The new program begins this Veterans Day, November 11, and you can find more information here.

Miller says gestures of solidarity such as this serve for veterans as “indicators of hope that we are not going to be left behind.”

After all, few things are more righteous than helping ensure those who selflessly served their country can get the medicine they need.

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