Marijuana and PTSD: Give the Joy of Life a Chance

With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks.
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.
You’re very well read
It’s well known.

But something is happening here
And you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

– Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man

Every once in a while a news story pops up that makes you laugh because it opens up a window on an absurdity of modern life. In this case, the absurdity involves two major national issues: Helping war-stressed combat veterans cope with life back home and the 40-year-old War On Drugs.

The New York Times reported recently that a group of researchers want to launch a study on the benefits of marijuana for Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The question looming over the study is will a stubborn federal government mired in the Drug War allow the study to even get off the ground.

The Times reports on an Iraq veteran in Texas suffering from a leg wound and several head injuries who told them “marijuana helped quiet his physical and psychological pain, while not causing weight loss and sleep deprivation brought on by his prescription medications” It seems the “munchies” can be beneficial to someone facing loss of appetite and emaciation.

“ ‘I have seen it with my own eyes,’ he said. ‘It works for a lot of the guys coming home.’ ”

I know a number of Vietnam and Iraq veterans who use marijuana. From my very unscientific survey it seems quite plausible that marijuana could be scientifically shown to bring a sense of calmness and pleasantness into a life burdened with harsh combat memories.

One vet who uses it fairly frequently says it helps him concentrate on creative matters. He says he’s not sure how much it actually helps his PTSD. He feels that is a matter of effectively addressing the issues causing the PTSD; in other words, marijuana or anything else is no replacement for the hard work necessary in recognizing why something is troubling an individual. But, still, he feels marijuana is a responsible, positive factor in his life.

Dr. Rick Doblin, left.Dr. Rick Doblin, left.

Another veteran who has used marijuana off and on for decades sees its usage as positive for balancing out life’s frustrations and difficulties. He laughs and says his wife will testify to how nice it makes him. But, he adds, it can be abused. “Too much of the stuff and it will make you stupid,” he said. “What’s important is to ‘understand thyself,’ then come to an understanding what effects, good and bad, marijuana has for you.”

All it takes is listening to the incredible litany of horrific warnings about the side effects of legal pharmaceuticals in current TV advertisements to understand what he means. Everything can be abused and different people react to different things in different ways. The difference between legal drugs and illegal drugs is simple: One is legal and designed by a corporation to make money, while the other has been deemed illegal and, thus, is distributed by a criminalized class that makes the profits.

It’s about ingesting a chemical that interacts with the body’s chemistry. In the case of psychotropic drugs, this interaction shifts the balance of certain aspects of consciousness. The body doesn’t care if the stuff is legal or illegal or who is making money off its use. If it has a benefit, that’s good.

Rick Doblin is the moving force behind the marijuana study. He has a doctorate in public policy from Harvard. For years, he has worked to legalize marijuana. Once he got his PhD, he set up the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Santa Cruz, California. The study proposed by Dr. Doblin and MAPS would involve 50 combat veterans whose PTSD has not responded to other treatments. It would be a blind study with placebos.

To get a feel for Dr. Doblin, listen to him explaining his MAPS program at a conference in Israel, then at another in Canada and a third that addresses his long-term efforts to legalize marijuana.

Hard core drug warriors may smile and say, hey, this guy is a hippie! Doblin would probably give his trademark smirk. At one juncture in a video, he calls himself an “affirmative action hippie” they let into Harvard. He may smile easily, but the man is quite serious.

“With so many veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a widely accepted need for a new treatment of PTSD,” Doblin told The Times. “These are people whom we put in harm’s way, and we have a moral obligation to help them.”

So far, the Food and Drug Administration has OKed the study. The current hurdle is the Department of Health and Human Services, which must give the OK in order for Doblin and his team to obtain the marijuana for the study. It’s not a matter of hooking up with a local dealer and obtaining the stuff. The marijuana has to come from the official US Government crop at the University of Mississippi.

If, instead of studying the beneficial aspects of marijuana, Dr. Doblin wanted to study its harmful effects, it’s clear he would have a much easier time of it with the Feds.

Getting to the Nitty Gritty

In his introductory remarks at the conference in Israel, Dr. Doblin gets to a key idea as to why asking questions about the benefits of marijuana use can be so troublesome to some. It has to do with the fact combat veterans are people trained and acculturated to war and its de-humanizing violence. It also has to do with a cultural addiction to violence and a fear of the unifying aspects of life.

“I’m not a psychologist or a therapist dealing with individual patients,” he told the Israeli attendees. “I’m a public policy person dealing with sick public policies.”

In his Israel remarks, he cites the rise of religious fundamentalism. He is fair and mentions all of the big three: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. “I think this rise of fundamentalism is pretty much the core problem in the world right now,” he says. He means the separation and division of people from other people. He sees marijuana as a counter to this us-versus-them sense of difference between peoples that is so much an engine for violence and warfare.

“For many of us, psychedelics – and marijuana especially – have helped us have experiences of connection, mystical experiences where you feel part of everything, and that there’s a deeper sense of identity than our religion or our country or our gender or our race; and that once you have this deeper sense of identity, you’re more likely to be tolerant, you’re more likely to appreciate differences rather than be scared by differences. And that’s where peacemaking can come from.”

My wife has said for years the reason marijuana is illegal is that it makes an individual less in awe of power and authority and more in awe of the process of living, and the beauty and joy that goes along with that process. For me, it has a lot to do with Freud’s idea of the life instinct versus the death instinct.

“[T]he inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man,” Freud writes in Civilization And It’s Discontents. This aggression, he says, “constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.”

He goes on to say “civilization is a process of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that, families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. …[T]he struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction … is what all life essentially consists of.”

Jungian analyst Loren E. Pedersen in Dark Hearts: The Unconscious Forces That Shape Men’s Lives puts a Jungian spin on the destructive death instinct and sees it as the masculine focus on power as “a result of [men’s] failure to incorporate the feminine in themselves.”

The point is, if we’re going to seriously address issues of post-traumatic-stress resulting from combat experience, the old, currently passé notions of deep, unconscious forces at work in our day-to-day activities and decisions may be worth revisiting. And if something like a toke of marijuana helps inject a little Eros into a life stuck in the hell of death — that is a good thing.

The days of pure behaviorist manipulation and the treatment of mental problems with harsh, numbing prescription drugs may be in need of revision. The smiling Dr. Doblin may be right: Marijuana may help a troubled combat vet regain some sense of belonging to a greater species of humanity than that represented by the flag and the Marine Corps Hymn. But, then, we’re back to the subversive quality of marijuana. But maybe some people need a little subversiveness to help them climb out of the hell they find themselves caught in.

In his fine book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, war correspondent Chris Hedges nicely resurrects Freud’s notion of Eros and Thanatos, the Greek term sometimes used for the death instinct. For Hedges, the former is “the impulse within us that propels us to become close to others” and the latter is “the impulse that works toward the annihilation of all living things, including ourselves.”

Soldiers in war can be traumatically overwhelmed by violence and death. “The lust for violence, the freedom to eradicate the world around them, even human lives, is seductive,” Hedges reports. “War ascendant wipes out Eros. War celebrates only power.”

In the end, Dr Doblin’s proposal is not funny. It should be taken seriously and his team allowed what it needs to see if marijuana is beneficial in easing the destructive impact of war on our veteran’s lives. It’s also bad policy to be criminalizing so many of our veterans who choose to “self-medicate” themselves. A little sanity in this area can go a long way.

This essay is co-posted on IN THE MIND FIELD at: