A veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who runs the Newfoundland branch of Marijuana for Trauma says the drug saved his life — and Ryan Edwards is now dedicated to helping others gain access to it.
A CBC News investigation has found that nearly two-thirds of the money Ottawa spent on medical marijuana last year went to veterans in Atlantic Canada — a region with comparatively few veterans.
Marijuana For Trauma, which opened in New Brunswick in March 2014, has said it is responsible for the spike in numbers in the region.
"There's a huge need for it here," said Edwards, the president of Marijuana for Trauma in St. John's.
The group opened its Newfoundland and Labrador's location just two weeks ago.
"There's a lot of veterans in St. John's, a lot of veterans in Newfoundland — a lot of them with PTSD, let alone the other physical injuries," Edwards said.
"Cannabis is saving lives. It really is."
Only drug that worked, Edwards says
Edwards spent almost 14 years in the Canadian Forces. He was injured during a tour in Bosnia in 1999, and four years later, he was diagnosed with PTSD. He retired from the military in 2009.
"In those six years, I tried every pharmaceutical drug that they would give me. All that happened was weight gain, sexual dysfunction, rage, suicidal thoughts. And then one day, a friend of mine — a superior, actually — offered me a joint in secret," he said.
I'll be honest with you, if I didn't have cannabis, if I didn't start using cannabis, I wouldn't be alive today. - Ryan Edwards
"I found almost instant relief of my symptoms of anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and since then, it's been my passion and my duty to help other veterans."
Edwards says the drug has given him quality of life.
"It's gotten me out of my home, out of my basement, out of my garage. It's introduced me to other veterans who have struggled the same way. It's a huge network; it's a huge peer support group," he said.
"I'll be honest with you, if I didn't have cannabis, if I didn't start using cannabis, I wouldn't be alive today."
How the centre operates
Edwards says the local Marijuana for Trauma clinic has about 40 clients, both veterans and civilians, who have a qualifying diagnosis.
There's a pre-screening process at the clinic, where all of the appropriate paperwork is gathered. Then, that package is sent to a clinic in Ontario, where a doctor reviews the patient's medical evidence, and sets up an online appointment over a secure video line, similar to Skype.
The doctor then counsels the patient, and will prescribe medical marijuana if there's a perceived need.
"We haven't had anyone, veteran-wise, turned down," Edwards said. "They've all been prescribed."
Licensed producers then supply the drug to those patients.
Edwards says veterans being treated for PTSD often have a larger cannabis prescription.
"For someone with severe PTSD, three or four grams a day is not going to cut it," he said. "They're going to need upwards of 10 grams a day to properly medicate."
Edwards says there are roughly 5,000 veterans in Newfoundland — many of whom, he says, have PTSD.
The Marijuana for Trauma clinic is currently working on arranging for two doctors — one from the island, and one from Nova Scotia — to make regular visits to St. John's.
"They're going to be hopefully flying in once a month for two days and holding a clinic here, seeing patients, and that will help speed up the process," he said.
While Edwards says there's research that supports the use of marijuana to treat the disorder, there are very few doctors in the province who are willing to prescribe it.
College posts critical advisory
Some medical professionals have publicly criticized how effective pot is at easing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Newfoundland and Labrador declined to answer any questions about medical marijuana in the province, instead steering CBC News to its website.
In an advisory posted there, the college is critical of medical marijuana, strongly discouraging local physicians from dispensing pot to their patients.
"The college believes that physicians should not be expected to facilitate patient access to a substance, for medical purposes, for which there is no body of evidence of clinical efficacy or safety," the website reads.
"As well, medical standards and guidelines for prescribing of marijuana, addressing issues such as standardized dosage or quality control, are lacking."