Fabian Henry was walking on the side of the road one day in late March when a van pulled up alongside him. A Canadian military veteran on a 750-mile walk to protest cuts to the government’s medical marijuana program, Henry was nearing the end of his day. He had walked more than 10 miles and it was snowing heavily.
The driver of the van was a military veteran, and they ended up having a 15-minute conversation about Henry’s journey from Oromocto (home of Canadian Forces Base Gagetown) to Ottawa. They also talked about the van driver’s own personal situation. He was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Henry counselled him on the military’s monetary-entitlement programs and the potential medical benefits of cannabis.
“[The military is] not proactive in telling you what you’re entitled to…and he knew nothing about cannabis, and he’s on pharmaceuticals that just don’t work for PTSD,” says Henry, the founder of Marijuana For Trauma, a veteran owned-and-operated company that helps people suffering from PTSD. It also provides guidance and advice to veterans trying to access programs and entitlements through Veterans Affairs Canada.
Henry's journey to becoming a cannabis advocate
Henry’s journey as a cannabis advocate began a decade ago with the events that led to him developing PTSD himself. An Army engineer, he was on a mission in Afghanistan and mapping routes where military convoys might encounter land-mines. There was a communication breakdown between Henry and another soldier relaying information about safe routes, and a military vehicle ran over a mine that exploded and killed two men.
“Two Canadian soldiers were killed because of that mistake,” says Henry. “And when I got back it basically raged [inside me] for three years. I lost my wife, my kids, everything I worked for.”
Henry was diagnosed with PTSD, and prescribed pharmaceuticals to help treat it. But they didn’t work, says Henry, and his life spiralled out of control. In 2008 he was both charged with threatening to kill the Oromocto fire chief, and driving under the influence of alcohol.
“I took nine pills a day for three years and I almost killed myself,” says Henry.
He tried cannabis for the first time in 2010. His sister was using it as part of her recovery from having a tumour removed from her spine, and he decided to give it a try as well. He experienced immediately results and stopped using pharmaceuticals entirely.
“I couldn’t believe the relaxation my body felt for the first time in three years,” he says.
“I haven’t taken a single pill [since then]. It’s the smoking or vaping the cannabis that relaxes my brain, gives me time to process what’s going on around me. I find I have better situational awareness now. I’m more conscious of my movements and my actions. I’m not out to get anyone. I’m not angry.”
Henry wanted to better understand why cannabis worked for him, so he began studying its potential medical benefits. As part of his research he contacted people like Dr. Alexander Neumeister at the Lagone Health Center at New York University. Neumeister published a study in 2013 that addressed the potential medicinal benefits of using cannabis to treat PTSD.
Neumeister stressed the need to search for alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs that didn’t effectively treat PTSD.
“There’s not a single pharmacological treatment out there that has been developed specifically for PTSD,” said Dr. Neumeister at the time his study was published.
“That’s a problem. There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressants simply do not work. In fact, we know very well that people with PTSD who use marijuana - a potent cannabinoid - often experience more relief from their symptoms than they do from antidepressants and other psychiatric medications. Clearly, there’s a very urgent need to develop novel evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”
When Henry began using medical marijuana it was not subsidized for treating PTSD, so he got it from the black market. He spent $37,000 on cannabis in two years, until Veterans Affairs began paying for up to 10 grams per day for veterans like Henry.
“That’s what I had to do to stay alive,” says Henry about resorting to the streets for his medical marijuana.
In late May, the federal government plans to cut the amount it will subsidize from 10 grams a day to three, a decision that inspired Henry’s protest walk, 158 Days In Honour Of 158 Lives – the number of soldiers who have died serving in Afghanistan.
Henry firmly believes that cannabis use will prevent more suicides in the future, and he says the military has to change its policies to make it easier for veterans to make medical marijuana an integrated part of the treatment process. Veterans Affairs will not allow patients to use cannabis in any of its treatment centres, for example, which Henry says is putting veterans at risk.
“It’s insanity,” says Henry. “They want you only on pharmaceuticals. But most of these guys get off the pharmaceuticals because they don’t work. And they’re saying you can’t come here and use the [stuff] that works. You have to take our stupid pills that don’t work."
“I don’t think [the suicides are] going to end until they allow the use of cannabis in hospitals and treatment programs on a regular basis,” says Henry. “When that happens, we’ll see a reduction.”
Henry says the planned cut from 10 grams per day to three will also put soldiers at increased risk. A report released in January showed that nearly 75 percent of veterans in the medical marijuana program use more than three grams per day, and one in three use the maximum allotment of 10 grams per day. That includes Henry himself.
“I’m worried,” he says of the impending cut. “I’m going to go from 10 grams a day to three on May 22, and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do.”
He’s also concerned about the veterans he works with at Marijuana For Trauma, which opened in Oromocto in 2013 and now has 15 clinics across the country. He says they serve 2,100 veterans who use cannabis in their treatment programs; 80 percent of them say they’ve have reduced or eliminated the use of pharmaceuticals as a result.
“All of them say their lives are better, whether it’s PTSD or chronic pain,” says Henry.
Henry realizes that cannabis is not a cure for PTSD, but he considers it an important part of the treatment process.
“You got to treat the symptom with the right medicine. You have to allow the use of cannabis to treat the symptoms so you can actually go get something out of treatment. You can actually go talk to a psychologist and process your trauma. You can’t do that on pills."
Henry plans to incorporate this holistic approach to recovery into the services provided to former soldiers. Veterans For Healing - another support organization started by Henry - has purchased a 100-acre piece of land in Cape Breton and plan to open a retreat center there sometime in the next three years. It will feature courses in meditation, yoga, organic cooking, and horticulture. The area also has beautiful, rugged coastal landscapes that are great for hiking.
"All of these types things help them decompress,” says Henry. “That’s all I think we need. Get on the right medicine, which is cannabis. Get into to the right treatment program, which is the [Veterans Affairs] treatment program, and then have a maintenance program for the peer support side of things at the end.”
That sums up Henry’s mission to provide an effective, wraparound treatment and recovery program for military veterans suffering from PTSD. And he attacks this mission with the kind of resolve and energy that led to his long journey to the nation’s capital through snowstorms and freezing temperatures. He plans to arrive in Ottawa May 18, four days before the cuts will take effect.
As he passes through towns and cities along secondary highways, lugging a backpack adorned with the flags of Canada and Veterans For Healing, he drops a letter through people's mailboxes explaining his campaign to maintain current funding levels for medical marijuana.
People who receive these letters, and others aware of what he’s doing, honk their horns as they pass by.
Others pull over their cars to show their appreciation in person. One guy stopped on the side of the road on a day it was well below zero. He handed Henry a hot chocolate, and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing. Thank you for your service. He got back in his car and left.”