News / Canada

Canadian war veteran turns to pot to cope with PTSD

Medicinal marijuana helped the former combat engineer gain control of his life.

Noah Starr, a former Canadian Armed Forces combat engineer from Fredericton, N.B.

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Noah Starr, a former Canadian Armed Forces combat engineer from Fredericton, N.B.

It took six deaths on Easter Sunday, 2007, for Noah Starr’s life to unravel.

It would take five years, thousands of pills, lost relationships and the discovery of medical marijuana before he won back some semblance of control.

“People call marijuana a gateway drug and it absolutely is. It’s been the gateway to my recovery,” said the former Canadian Armed Forces combat engineer from Fredericton, N.B.

“I’ve had times when I was in the hospital because I didn’t know where to turn. I have been one of those soldiers.”

Starr, now 31, can trace his troubles through the dust and dirt of Afghanistan to a road about 75 km west of Kandahar City. It was there on April 8, 2007, that an improvised explosive device exploded as a light armoured vehicle carrying Sgt. Donald Lucas of the 2nd Batallion of the Royal Canadian Regiment and the five other young men under his charge drove past.

Starr, whose job was to inspect Kandahar’s routes for roadside bombs, was working with another team a short distance away and was among the first to respond.

“It hit really close to home because I was wearing the exact same uniform that these guys were wearing. It made it very real for me and I think it put into perspective what could happen,” he said.

He kept coming back to the attack in his head. He chastised himself for feeling lucky that his friends had been switched out of the convoy at the last minute. The pictures of the dead men, the pictures of their families and the images of recently delivered Valentine’s Day cards etched themselves into Starr’s mind.

He put on a brave face, telling a Canadian reporter nearly two months later that, “I feel we are making an incredible difference. You know, just seeing kids on the street waving to us.”

But Starr was acutely aware he was suffering psychological problems and he told his superiors he needed help. Help, at that point in the Afghan mission, was a prescription for medication and access to a social worker to help him deal with his health needs while overseas. He trusted then that the military was equipped to help him deal with his difficulties.

It wasn’t until September 2007, when he returned to CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick and found there were only two psychiatrists available for the entire 2,000-member battle group that had just returned from war, that his confidence was rattled.

“It took me six months before I even saw a doctor,” he said. “It wasn’t until January of 2008 that I had a working diagnosis of PTSD. It was almost a year before a doctor said, ‘You’ve got PTSD. We’re going to start you on a program.”

The program was built upon a cocktail of prescribed drugs to help him sleep, to deal with depression and to tamp down his anxiety.

“At my worst point there were about six different drugs at one time and only ever seeing that if this wasn’t working there was another drug or an increase of a drug,” Starr said. “If I ever forgot these drugs, I would get a wicked withdrawal reminder and my quality of life was almost non-existent.”

That regimen, which also included one year of anger-management therapy, continued for years, during which Starr said he was twice denied a transfer to one of the military’s Joint Personnel Support Units, a military designation created as a way station for ill and injured personnel. He wanted to return to Vancouver — he and his then-girlfriend’s hometown — so that she could have family help with their two children while he dealt with his psychological problems.

Instead, Starr was kept at CFB Gagetown where he said that the heavy doses of sleeping pills he was prescribed caused him to be chronically late for work, testing the patience and eventually provoking the ire of his superior officers.

Those problems ended only in December 2012, when Starr was released from the military. He was judged “unsuitable for further service” — an item 5f release — because of personal problems “within his control” that had made him “an excessive administrative burden” to the military he had dreamed of joining ever since he was a boy.

Starr had lost his mental health, his family and now his career. Preparing for life as a civilian, he began looking for a new treatment. He examined psychedelic drugs like LSD and Ecstasy, which have been shown to have some benefit in PTSD therapies.

He finally settled on marijuana, which he at first had to purchase illegally off the street — a transaction that only heightened his anxiety because of the fear of unknown substances or arrest.

“Even that stuff did have a wonderful effect on me,” he said.

The marijuana was also a brake for Starr’s uncontrollable anger, which would be set off by the slightest provocations.

“The second that it touches my lungs it just washes out of me. It just goes away and I can’t describe it in any other way. It just melts off me,” he said.

Since early 2013, he has not touched any pharmaceutical drugs. He is still separated from his former girlfriend and not allowed to see his children — a painful consequence of his problems that he says he is working to repair.

But he now runs a property management company and works as a marijuana mentor for CannaConnect, a company that helps veterans obtain prescriptions and benefits for medical marijuana.

“My life will never be normal. I’ve come to terms with that,” he said. “But it’s as normal as I think it can be.”