Cannabis Refugee


Robert Kowalski is a disabled veteran of the U.S. Air Force and served two combat tours of duty in Iraq. He is also the president and founder of the non-profit Veterans Ending the Stigma. Robert has been diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, survivor’s guilt, low weight, and agoraphobia as a result of his combat experiences. He shares his story of how medical cannabis has helped him heal.

I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010 when I was still active duty military and fought for four or five months just to get treatment from the military for my condition. That led to me do my own research to understand how I could help myself cope with my condition and still be able to function and go to work. I turned to alcohol initially like many people in the military do. Then, I found research that Bryan Krumm, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in New Mexico, had done on medical cannabis and figured this might be the right fit for me. I started using cannabis soon after that. However, the military put me through prolonged exposure therapy and it pretty much undid all the progress I had made. The goal is to numb you to situations that make you uncomfortable by forcing you to be in those situations. It’s like trying to fight fire with fire. It was a huge setback for me.

I became a medical cannabis refugee in 2012, moving from Ohio to Arizona, where medical cannabis is legal, to treat my PTSD. I was taking 20 different pills a day, including 900 mg of gabapentin, a very powerful drug used to treat nerve pain, three times a day. I only weigh 120 pounds, so you can image what 900 mg of gabapentin can do to someone as small as me. When I got to Arizona, I found a doctor who could recommend medical cannabis for me. Where I lived also gave me the ability to cultivate cannabis at home, so I grew different strains to see what worked best for me.

I took it upon myself to create my own patient journal to record how I was feeling, why I needed to use medical cannabis when I used it, and what I used. At my nonprofit, Veterans Ending the Stigma, we’re working to duplicate a blank version of my patient journal that others around the U.S. can use and provide the information they gather to their doctors so the doctors understand how their patients are using medical cannabis and how it helps them.

Since I’ve been using medical cannabis, my symptoms have been drastically reduced. Although I was diagnosed with agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder that causes fear of open spaces, crowds, and situations where you feel trapped), I’m now able to do public speaking all over the country on behalf of my non-profit. My weight is stable and I’m able to maintain my current weight when before I was losing weight. It also works well as a rescue medication if I’m triggered and feeling very anxious.

At first my parents were standoffish about medical cannabis, but when they saw the effects of all the prescription pills and saw the triggers and nightmares I was going through, then saw me on cannabis, there was an immediate change in their openness to medical cannabis. I also moved back to Ohio to treat my grandmother with cannabis-infused peanut butter and butter on crackers when she was diagnosed with colon cancer for the second time. Twenty-four hours after her first dose, she went shopping for the first time in three years. Forty-eight hours after, she cleaned her house for the first time in three years by herself. She had the energy to do things and she was happier.

As an advocate for medical cannabis, I helped create Ohio’s medical cannabis law…

As an advocate for medical cannabis, I helped create Ohio’s medical cannabis law and wrote a clause specifically about veteran’s access. I’ve also worked closely with the World Health Organization and the International Narcotics commission on issues surrounding medical cannabis science and the restrictions on its use and with ASTM International, a standards non-profit, creating cannabis standards.

For me, healing begins with purpose. When I left the military, I went from having one big purpose to none. Now, working as a medical cannabis advocate and talking to people whose lives have been saved by this medicine, I feel this purpose is as big or bigger than the one I had previously in the military.

Editor’s Note: This CBMD patient story has been written and submitted by a cannabis patient. CBMD has been released from any and all claims as to its content and is not responsible for any medical and/or clinical use claims.

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