While some veterans have embraced medical cannabis, others still take a hard line on the substance.
Independence Day has come and gone in the United States this year. For many Americans, the holiday is a time to gather with friends and family for a dip in the pool and gorge on grilled foods. But for the large number of Americans who have served in the military — and especially those who have seen combat defending the country — the explosion of fireworks might remind them of bombs bursting overhead, ambushes and losing their friends.
For those soldiers who have tried pharmaceuticals prescribed by their doctors only to develop more health problems than they had prior to their service, cannabis might be a viable solution to control and calm their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But a lifetime of federal prohibition and stigma against the plant contributes to a reticence, if not downright antipathy, for a substance that might finally provide relief and calmness.
For some, like U.S. Navy veteran Justin Jicha, even being around the plant has provided therapeutic benefit. He served from 2004 to 2011.
“I spent just about seven years in the Navy. Got to see places I never would have seen had I not been in the Navy,” Jicha said. “I did all sorts of things, from search and rescue missions to helping out after Katrina. The ship I was on was actually being still built when Hurricane Katrina came through, and that was quite damaging to the ship, let alone what happened in New Orleans. And just helping out there was a nightmare and a half, just the things you saw there. After getting out, I had a hard time acclimating back to civilian life. That was the hardest daily struggle, just like, ‘What do I do today?’ It just wasn’t as simple as it was in the military. You know, wake up, do your job, finish up, go home. And I missed the camaraderie, the people. I joined right out of high school and never knew anything besides the military as an adult for the next seven years and then getting out, I just couldn’t function as a civilian would in some situations. Some things that would normally just bounce off, I would get really frustrated and angry over.
“One day, after Alaska legalized recreational, my brother comes over and he goes, ‘You have a lot of land here. You mind growing a few plants for me?’ And I’m so against it. From a military standpoint, I was really dead-set against it. Didn’t do any of the drugs. Didn’t take any of my pain pills or anything like that. Just was super against any of those drugs altogether — pharmaceutical or recreational drugs. My brother kind of talked me into it. Five, six months later, I just started dabbling in it. Nothing grew very well my first three grows. My first attempt, I used Miracle-Gro. Yeah. Big mistake, I learned.
“When I actually started growing for my brother, helping him out, I actually was able to find inner peace and actually be calm around people, happy. My stresses go away just being around the growing plant, not even consuming it. And that was probably the best medicine for me, just learning how to be patient again, not expecting to snap to. I had been trained through the military. I would have better connection with the plants than I did with people for a while and actually was really calming for me to be able to separate from everything I’ve been through and just experience calmness. They talked to me in a different way. They told me if they needed water; they’d sag down and look droopy. They’d tell me if I watered them too much. That’d have similar effects, and so that was kind of miscommunication at times, which I had to learn, and learning the communication with the plant was really a big step in learning how to actually communicate with other people again, slow my thought processes down to actually explain what I was trying to say to them, instead of going from A to Z without even covering A, B, C, D, E, F.”
It was his first exposure to horticulture, and even though he was growing some of the best cannabis around, he was not consuming the plant until an incident forced him to make a choice between his past and his future.
“I had a bad PTSD flashback and it turned bad on my brother, and the conclusion was I was going to smoke a bowl and calm down or he wasn’t going to talk to me ever again,” he said. “I felt I had really damaged the relationship, and so what harm was there in mending it if that’s all it took was to take a couple hits off of this joint? And I actually calmed down. And after that was touch and go, like, ‘Do I really want to cross this line, or is that just a one-time deal?’ I struggled with that for a while, and I was still growing the plants, and my brother finally goes, ‘You just need to smoke it. You grow really good stuff.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what really good stuff tastes like. How can I grow really good stuff?’”
Jicha does not like to go into specifics about combat, including where or when he was stationed and fought or when, but he did say that he suffered a traumatic brain injury during the course of his service. His PTSD and injuries landed him on 76 pills a day before he finally gave up on them. He went without anything for some time before he started medicating with cannabis.
“The [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] had me on quite a few pills starting off … and they just kept on adding a lot. And I was taking them because I felt like they were helping,” he said. “But then more and more problems were coming up. Started to get vertigo issues where I was losing my balance. I couldn’t stand up. It started interfering with my speech. I couldn’t even talk to people normally, just the compounding; it felt like I was walking through a fog all the time. And they just kept giving me more and more pills like, ‘Here. This will help take care of that. This will do that. Let’s take you off this one. Let’s add this one.’ Finally, I just couldn’t keep track of my pills enough. I’m like, ‘I’m done with it. I want to go to cannabis.’ You know, this is silly to be taking all these pills for anxiety and then take a pill to counteract the effects of the side effects of the anxiety pill that causes seizures, and then it just went around and around.”
After about three years of growing and his brothers bragging that Jicha cultivated the best cannabis around, a commercial grower came to him about coming to work for him.
“That’s when I actually got my first hands-on experience in a commercial setting,” he said. “And it was really exciting to just see the differences between what I’ve done in my home setting because I experimenting every which way I could find out from hydroponics to soil to super soil to hybrid systems, just experimenting, what worked for me. To have somebody on their own system that they’re doing their regimen and it’s pumping out X amount of weight per week, and it was like, ‘Wow! This totally puts a whole new meaning to growing for me.’ And I got along great with him. And after a few years, he asked me if I would be interested in getting a horticulture degree and actually having a grower salary. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. That sounds great.’ So I came back to Oklahoma to get my horticulture degree, and luckily for me was here, it happened to be legalized. So I’ve gotten my patient card and I’ve grown a few rounds, and it’s just something I’m very passionate about doing. I love teaching people how to grow. It’s saved my life. Undoubtedly. I was a pretty miserable guy without it in my life.”
Jicha works now for Organics OKC Garden Supply, helping people start their own medical cannabis grows. He still suffers badly from PTSD years later, and July 4 is always a rough time for him. He smokes a large amount of cannabis each week, and that intake only increases during the holiday, when PTSD episodes are likely to be triggered.
“Gunshots would set them off. Fireworks would set them off. Even a simple car engine, the backfiring sound you hear when that goes off, that would often set it off, trying to go back into that military mindset,” Jicha said. “‘Do I react or do I halt action? What’s going on?’ At first, it took a while to reassess my situation that I’m in friendly territory, not in the war zone. ‘Don’t have to go to combat stations. Don’t have to go get geared up. No guns needed. It’s all right.’ But there have been also episodes where there was just complete, almost mental breakdown where Fourth of July is a holiday I hide away on. It was also the day I got married on. But the Fourth, fireworks set me off, and so I know on that day, I’m going to be very stoned and someplace the farthest away from sound in the house. All such precautions I take nowadays.”
TaMike McCloud comes from a military family. He also did not start consuming cannabis until after he left the service, but debate over the plant is divided even among his own kin.
I had a bad PTSD flashback and it turned bad on my brother,
and the conclusion was I was going to smoke a bowl
and calm down or he wasn’t going to talk to me ever again.
“My background with the military starts with my father. He did 20 years in the Army, and then I was in the Air Force for 13. My older brother, he just got out. I think he did like 20, 21, and he was in the Army. My younger brother was in the Navy for, I think, four years,” McCloud said. “One of the big things about how [State Question] 788 has helped veterans, for me, is kind of hypocrisy because my dad, he was up in Kansas. He had cancer, went to the VA hospital, all this other stuff, for the VA to be able to prescribe him a marijuana pill. But for the VA to be able to prescribe someone marijuana pills but then, at the same time, not allow them to use marijuana is, to me, a little hypocrisy, and for the federal government to say it’s illegal but then a federal government entity still prescribes these things is bewildering.”
Dronabinol is a synthetic form of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, and has been approved for prescription by the Food & Drug Administration. However, the real plant is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance and cannot be legally provided or recommended by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
“With me and my dad, I’ve seen where cannabis actually did benefit him. He would eat, he would get up, he would do so many things when he was going through chemo. My older brother, on the other hand, we’re completely opposite, you know, where he’s looking at medicinal marijuana to where the government says it’s bad, so it’s bad. ‘I’m in the military. I can’t do this. Blah, blah, blah.’ With him, he is one of the prime candidates, in my opinion, that would need medicinal marijuana. When I went across the pond, I was AWACS, so whenever our jet went over there, we would never be in theater. We would be outside of theater. Our plane would fly into theater and come back. So we were never really within harm’s danger. The only harm’s danger that I knew of is that Marines would go up in the mountains every day to shoot people that were trying to shoot at us. That’s the only harm I knew, and that never happened,” McCloud said. “But my brother, on the other hand, he lost people in gunfire, he lost people with IEDs and all that other stuff, so he is one of those true PTSD soldiers. He even talks about he doesn’t celebrate Fourth of July because of the fireworks. It’s like Fourth of July is not a celebration for him anymore. But yet, he is one to where, ‘Well, no, I will not do marijuana.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, Tim; Dad, he tried to explain to you this is something that would actually benefit you,’ but due to all the knowledge out there, I believe that there are so many veterans that are missing out on a very simple thing that could help improve their lives so much. 788 helps veterans, but there’s still a lot of veterans out there that are like, ‘No.’”