When he returned from war in 2004, veteran Roberto Pickering was diagnosed as 100 percent disabled from posttraumatic stress disorder. "Who I am today, I'm a normal guy until you peel the onion back," he says. "It's taken me 13 years to get to this point. I'm no longer on prescription pills, no longer using alcohol. I taught myself nutrition, I'm now a full vegan, practicing Buddhist. I went full circle from a marine sniper."
Cannabis played no small role in Pickering's recovery process. Now his goal is to help other vets suffering from trauma and other war injuries use cannabis to get better. For some vets, cannabis can serve not only as a medical treatment, but as a professional endeavor to get them back on their feet.
Last year, Pickering teamed up with Dr. Sue Sisley, who has received approval from the government to study cannabis for PTSD, in order to launch the Battlefield Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Based out of Los Angeles, Pickering, who's been doing this work unofficially for nearly eight years, describes the foundation's three-pronged approach to help vets.
The first prong is emotional support, or a "big brother" program to offer mentorship for vets with PTSD and other war injuries transition out of service and back into regular life. The second is medical support, offering non-opiate based relief through cannabis therapy. "There's a huge opioid epidemic, and that's also very prevalent in the veteran community," Pickering says. "Vets prescribed heavy opiates and morphine are left with addiction. I've lost a few of my marine corps brothers to the opioid epidemic. It started with a prescription at the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]."
The foundation's medical arm is also where Dr. Sisley comes in. As a physician from Scottsdale, Arizona, Sisley and her colleagues with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) received a grant from the government nearly two years ago to study cannabis as a treatment for veterans with PTSD. But there was a catch: she could only use the shoddy weed grown by the government's only cannabis cultivation facility, overseen by NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) at the University of Mississippi. When Sisley finally received the shipment of government ganja, it looked more like green talcum powder than cannabis flower. And moreover, it was moldy (however, ultimately, MAPS found it to be within accepted health guidelines, not containing more mold, lead, and other materials than expected).
"I think all the vets were really dismayed when they saw the quality of the cannabis that I was forced to use," Sisley says. She and Roberto came to the conclusion that they needed better quality cannabis, for the sake of the studies. "We realized we needed to apply for our own license," she says.
With the Battlefield Foundation, they've since applied for a government license to grow better weed than the stuff from Mississippi that even high schoolers would stick up their noses at. "But the application has been sitting on the desk of the DEA national office for a year, we have no idea when they'll approve it," Sisley says.
Under their medical approach, Sisley says one of the primary goals of the foundation is funding and raising money for clinical trials. The Battlefield Foundation will also have a for-profit brand associated with a name, with a large percentage of the net profits dedicated back into the 501(c)(3) and the research Sisley oversees.
Vets need access to rigorous data published in peer reviewed medical journals, scientifically illustrating the extent to which cannabis effectively treats PTSD, Sisley says. "Some vets will say, 'I don't need your study, I already know it helps,' but we need controlled trials and access to objective information, not just anecdotal reports. That will help the veteran community more than anything."
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Currently, these trials require millions of dollars of funding, which can be difficult to come by. Through the foundation, veterans with access to medical marijuana under California law can report back to Sisley and the team, helping them gather data about how cannabis works for them. If, or when, the DEA approves the license application, they'll be able to use the weed grown under Sisley's auspices for the clinical trials. "The medical prong is all about the clinical trials, we're developing a database that can be published," she says. Meanwhile, vets would receive guidance on how to use cannabis and other plant-based therapies.
The foundations third prong is economic support. The idea is to find veterans jobs in the cannabis industry, or even to place them in positions at Pickering's own cultivation facilities, two of which are in L.A. and one in Oakland. "The cannabis industry is such a forgiving, second-chance industry," says Pickering. "You can be an ex-felon, a guy who's struggling with PTSD. It gives them a sense of purpose, a place in the world they can be passionate about, and a meaningful paycheck to feel whole again and to really have a sustainable recovery process." Being able to integrate back into society as professionals, providing for their families will further help veterans heal.
"Vets are coming back from war, and now they have a war here in America to fight. The enemy is suicide and an opioid epidemic, and these guys are getting healed in the very industry that's eliminating that," says Pickering. "They're finding themselves through employment, finding confidence again, contributing to a greater plant that's helping end the opioid epidemic in this country."