Living with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, looks something like this: Veteran Korey Rowe gets stuck in traffic on the 405. He'll get angry and worked up and start beating the steering wheel of his Jeep Wrangler. As a trained soldier, having been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, he has memories of being ambushed during war when stuck in traffic — so now, even 15 years later in sunny L.A., traffic sends his mind into fight-or-flight mode.
"I turn into an asshole," says Rowe, whose personality is more that of a sweet, artistic filmmaker than any kind of actual jerk. Diagnosed as 70 percent disabled from PTSD and 10 percent from tinnitus, Rowe has identified traffic as a trigger.
"I have to ask myself, is someone going to pop out with an AK-47 and shoot at me? No, they're not, I'm in a safe environment," he says. "So there are two things I can carry in my car to deal with traffic. One of them is a .45 — if I get angry and in a fight, I need a weapon to protect myself. And the other option is a cannabis pen. I can hit that pen when I get aggravated and the cannabis helps me relax, calm down and deal with the traffic."
Of course, Rowe opts to carry ganja over guns. That's why he moved to California. He calls himself a "medical refugee," seeking free access to cannabis to treat his PTSD.
His story began in 1999 at the age of 16, when he got busted for two dimebags of shwag. Labeled a "stoner," Rowe became unwelcome at home. He moved out and over the next two years got evicted from more than a dozen apartments. By the time he was 18, his only option was to join the military. It was August 2001. Then 9/11 happened.
"I had no idea what I had signed up for. Before I was even 19 years old, I was tiptoeing around landmines, holding a grenade launcher, and shitting my pants every day for what I had done," Rowe says. After four years, he returned home from the army to upstate New York, eventually getting himself into trouble for drugs, using whatever he could to self-medicate. His life spiraled downward so quickly that his only hope was legal weed where he could medicate without getting into trouble.
"My goal now is to make cannabis an acceptable and beneficial part of healing humanity because that's what it's done for me," Rowe says.
The now 35-year-old vet recently finished a cross-country road trip to make a documentary called Mile Marker, shedding light on his battle buddies' stories and showing those who struggle with PTSD that they're not alone. On Tuesday, May 22, there will be an 8 p.m. screening of Mile Marker at the Pacific Theaters at the Grove, with free entry for vets. (To RSVP, they can email MileMarkerVeteran@gmail.com.)
For Rowe, the number 22 carries a lot of significance. According to the most commonly cited statistic, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. So in Mile Marker, Rowe interviewed 22 veterans. The film, he says, is for No. 23, "for the one who's thinking about suicide and to stop him from doing it."
PTSD is diagnosed when, after a traumatic, often life-threatening stressor, a person's recovery process is interrupted, explains Dr. Paula Schnurr, executive director at the National Center for PTSD. After a car accident, for example, it's typical to experience PTSD symptoms such as sudden, unwanted memories, nightmares, self-blame, and feeling alert, numb or cut off from other people. Within days or weeks, those symptoms should subside, but if they persist for at least a month, that may qualify as PTSD. "What that means for individuals is that they themselves are also changed, and they may find that it affects all aspects of their well-being and functioning," Schnurr says.
Today, 11 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans, while 51 percent of those homeless veterans have disabilities and 50 percent have mental illness. A whopping 70 percent have substance abuse problems. Not surprisingly, PTSD increases a veteran's risk of death by suicide, whether they're homeless or not.
"It's not clear that any particular medication helps with symptoms, but that doesn't stop people from trying to self-medicate," Schnurr says. With effective, holistic treatment, however, substantial symptoms can be mitigated, she adds.
Chris Taylor, a veteran from Phoenix who is featured in Mile Marker, tried to get treatment; he made an appointment with the VA, but the soonest he could get was in six months. So when he returned six months later for his appointment, they told him he had to wait another three months, and put him on a "secret waiting list." In the interim, Taylor's life took a turn for the worse: He developed a tolerance to the opioid painkillers he'd been prescribed for a back injury he sustained in Afghanistan, and eventually switched to heroin. He floundered around for nearly two years until the VA finally helped get him into a PTSD program — but unfortunately, Taylor's story isn't unique.
Currently, there are no clinical studies in America examining cannabis for PTSD, with the exception of Dr. Sue Sisley's FDA-approved double-blind research program in Arizona. Sisley, who also is interviewed in the documentary, and her cohort just enrolled their 61st vet in the program, with the goal of getting to 76. The veterans in the program are given up to 1.8 grams of flower a day so they can self-titrate, or smoke as much or as little as they feel they need.
The cannabis flower itself, which Sisley bemoans is of poor quality, is grown by a government facility at the University of Mississippi. "I don't have any hope that this administration will take initiative to license other growers for research, even though the DEA announced over two years ago they would do that," Sisley says. "So in the meantime, we're stuck with this really suboptimal plant material. Our beef is that it doesn't represent real-world cannabis."
Sisley fears the medical community will never embrace whole-plant cannabis as a medicine until it's been put through an FDA drug development process. But even so, Sisley has already observed decent efficacy with minimal side effects. "The main side effect is anxiety," she says. "But I assure you the side effects are still considerably less than the prescriptions that I write for patients every day."
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So far, research from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has shown that patients with PTSD have lower levels of anandamide, also known as the body's "bliss molecule," an endogenous cannabinoid, or chemical compound normally found in cannabis. Anandamide triggers the same receptors that are activated by THC, CBD and other cannabis compounds, according to researcher Martin Lee. Because PTSD is characterized by a deficiency of anandamide, cannabis can be especially helpful.
In short, cannabis might be able to replenish the body's receptor sites for cannabinoids, where PTSD causes deficiencies. At the same time, pot suppresses the REM phase of the sleep cycle, when dreams and traumatic nightmares happen. By this token, cannabis could also help PTSD patients sleep better.
Many states around the country, even those with conservative medical marijuana programs, have sanctioned cannabis for PTSD. "One of the things we had to overcome were irrational stigmas that had been around for decades; when some people in the legislature and elsewhere think of cannabis, they think of hippies and the '60s," says Pennsylvania state senator Daylin Leach, who passed his state's medical marijuana bill. "Vets were hugely helpful [in passing the bill]. One guy who had never smoked pot in his life said that when he tried it, after suffering with PTSD and meds that made him a zombie and suicidal, he felt like he had his life back. The endorsement from a demographic you wouldn't think of as being pro-cannabis was hugely helpful in changing minds."
While Rowe's family once judged him for being a "stoner," he says they've come a long way in recognizing that cannabis is truly his medicine. "My mother kicked me out for smoking cannabis, but when I made this movie, for the first time she understood what I was going through and why I smoke it," he says. "For the first time in my life, I rolled a joint in front of my mom and didn't feel bad about it, and she didn't feel bad about it. And all of this started over a dimebag of shwag."