In 2009, Matthew Kahl of the 101st Airborne Division returned stateside from his first combat deployment. In Afghanistan he had seen firsthand the carnage of explosions set off in crowded street markets. Back on base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he tried to put those memories behind him. But echoes of wartime still haunted him as he as he inched through the commissary.
He made his way through the market with his back to the aisles’ shelves, keeping a watchful eye on the bustle. Children toddled behind their mothers, sometimes squealing or crying. Kahl couldn’t stand the crying.
Then a thought hit him, coursing through his body hit him like an electric current: All of these people are going to die. His eyes darted around the fluorescent-lit store as the dread grew. I’m going to see them all die, he thought. Any minute now.
“A lot of people that have PTSD have emotional outbursts. It’s usually from a position of fear, but it can manifest as anger.”
Kahl had taken his back off the shelves just long enough to turn a corner when a man bumped into him from behind. Before Kahl knew what happened, the man was in the air. The next moment he was on the ground, sprawled on his back, looking up at Kahl incredulously.
What had transpired was still crystalizing in Kahl’s mind as he sheepishly apologized, offered his hand to help the man up, and excused himself from the store.
Kahl had just experienced a PTSD-related flashback. To this day, he doesn’t have a clear memory of what happened in the commissary. The unexpected bump from a stranger triggered combat memories, and he says his mind was transported back to the crowded Afghani markets.
Sitting in his parked car outside the market, he watched the military police pull up. Then he drove off.
That’s when Kahl decided to stop going out. For the sake of others, he told himself, he’d stay home. There, he found temporary relief from his unrelenting hypervigilance: alcohol and a heavy-duty regimen of military-prescribed painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep medications. The cocktail of pills and liquor rendered Kahl incapacitated most of the time, which only added to his self-loathing.
In 2013, after two suicide attempts and near-fatal kidney and liver failure, a friend—one of few Kahl had left—suggested he try cannabis to ease his symptoms. What happened next would change the course of Kahl’s life. He would go on to lend his hand in crafting a landmark Colorado bill, SB 17, which could approve PTSD for medical cannabis patients in the state. Teetering on the edge of becoming law, it made its way through the Legislature in April and now awaits the signature of Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Kahl sits in a makeshift grow room at his home in Divide, CO. As the founder and executive director of Veterans for Natural Rights, it’s been his goal since moving to Colorado to improve veterans’ access to cannabis. (Daniel Brenner for Leafly)
A New Hope
“I took a few hits off a joint,” Kahl said of his first time using cannabis to cope with PTSD. At first he didn’t feel much, he remembers. Then he did.
“I noticed I was just sort of daydreaming,” he recalled, “just sort of idle thoughts, not anything alarming, none of the anxiety or the circular thought patterns that often are indicative of PTSD and hypervigilance. All that sort of went away.”
Kahl wasn’t alone. A 2014 study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that cannabis patients in New Mexico, where PTSD has long been a qualifying condition, experienced a 75% decrease in three major PTSD-related symptoms. A separate study in 2015 concluded that “substantial numbers of military veterans with PTSD,” have improved their coping ability through cannabis and experienced relief from symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia.
For someone who had been gripped for years by unrelenting anxiety and depression, the difference was astonishing. “It was like, Holy crap, man, you just had a few minutes of peace. You need to figure out how to make that happen again.”
Kahl decided commit to cannabis to help manage his PTSD. He and his wife, Aimee, moved their family to Colorado in the summer of 2014. Colorado didn’t permit treatment of PTSD with medical cannabis at the time, but because Kahl had a number of other medical conditions from injuries sustained in combat, he had no problem acquiring a doctor’s recommendation.
For other veterans, however, access was harder. Kahl saw friends living with PTSD, but not other ailments, who weren’t using cannabis.
“I styled myself as a bit of a cannabis evangelist,” Kahl said. He began growing his own plants and learning what strains best eased his symptoms. Then he started growing extra to give away to other veterans. When it comes to treating PTSD, he said, not just any strain will do.
Anecdotal reports suggest that CBD-rich cannabis and certain terpenes and flavonoids are more beneficial than others, according Sue Sisley, the psychiatrist who spearheaded the first Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical study into how smoked cannabis affects PTSD symptoms. In other words, the high-THC strains typically available at retail stores aren’t the strains most PTSD sufferers turn to.