Chris Hillier’s life arc bottomed out in a Vancouver back alley, across the country from his Newfoundland home and a world away from the war zone that broke him.
Homeless, penniless, and addicted to crack cocaine, Hillier slept behind a community centre, at the intersection of Hastings and Main, the notorious epicentre of the city’s drug trade.
Three years earlier, Hillier was in the midst of a successful military career, serving his country as an air force firefighter aboard HMCS Preserver in the Middle East in the months after the 9/11 strikes on the U.S.
His tour with Operation Apollo took him to the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. But the constant stress of working in a theatre of war left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he believes was worsened by conventional pharmaceuticals prescribed by military doctors.
Today, Hillier is off the streets and clean because, he says, of a treatment that few in the Canadian military like to discuss: medical marijuana.
Hillier, 35, is one of just a handful of veterans who are treating their PTSD with cannabis and getting it paid for by Veterans Affairs Canada.
The department says 26 vets are getting support for participation in Health Canada’s Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) program. Ten use it to treat PTSD, even though the Canadian Forces shun the drug for medical use.
The use of marijuana to treat PTSD is a contentious issue, particular in the U.S., where thousands of veterans have recently returned from war zones.
Despite pressure from soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who claim the drug helps them, and advocacy by some doctors, the U.S. military has resisted calls to make it available to injured soldiers.
The U.S. Veterans Administration also does not consider marijuana a suitable treatment for PTSD and will not help its clients obtain it in any of the 16 states it is currently available medicinally.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in September rejected a request to authorize marijuana testing on 50 veterans with PTSD. The government said it had questions about the qualifications of the researchers and safety concerns about vets taking the drug outside of a medical facility.
The Canadian Forces will not consider prescribing marijuana to active members who might have the same health issues, either.
“The CF are committed to evidence-based medicine that has been thoroughly tested in multiple trials and published in peer-reviewed journals,” said Canadian Forces Health Service spokeswoman Colleen Boicey in an email.
“There is insufficient evidence for the safety and efficacy of medical use of marijuana in the treatment of PTSD.”
A 2007 directive sent to Canadian Forces doctors specifically forbids them from helping patients get marijuana.
“No CF physician, third-party contract physician . . . or a physician engaged under a DND contact will assist the patient to complete the submission to Health Canada under the MMAR,” says the directive, released to the Ottawa Citizen under the Access to Information Act.
The forces will pay for authorized Health Canada marijuana if members get approved by another doctor, but base pharmacies will not participate in its supply.
To treat PTSD, the forces say they have a mental health program that “provides dedicated and responsive care for ill and injured CF members.”
But Chris Hillier blames that approach for pushing pharmaceutical drugs on him and putting him on the path to cocaine addiction.
Though he hadn’t been diagnosed, Hillier was already showing signs of PTSD when he came back from the war. He lost interest in his work. He was argumentative and couldn’t sleep.
“I went from being a shining star to the bottom of the barrel,” Hillier says.
He chose not to renew his military contract and by the time he left, he was dealing with serious drug addiction issues. There was an assault charge on a police officer. Another charge for uttering threats. He lost custody of his children.
“It was really a downward spiral,” he says.
Only after he started using marijuana in Vancouver did he find some relief.
It helped control his anxiety and let him sleep. He put on weight he had shed during his addiction.
Hillier went home to Newfoundland and entered rehab. Doctors gave him psychiatric drugs — Zoloft, Risperidone, Seroquel — but he flushed them down the toilet and kept using cannabis.
“I was buying it on the street, growing it illegally in my basement,” he says.
“It’s what worked. Despite the fact it was a crime, I had to have some quality of life. I had to have some stability. The conventional drugs just created more problems.”
He shook his addiction to hard drugs and eventually told his doctor in Newfoundland the secret behind his recovery.
She finally agreed to sign off on his application to enter Health Canada’s medical marijuana program.
Veterans Affairs agreed to pay for the marijuana, as long as he bought it from Health Canada’s supplier, Prairie Plant Systems. He found, however, that the strain of government-sanctioned pot actually increased his anxiety. Now he grows his own and his wife bakes it into cookies. If his stress level gets too high, he smokes a joint.
Hillier is enrolled in a Veterans Affairs vocational training program, learning to work in information technology security.
He says he is disappointed that the Canadian Forces aren’t more open to marijuana to treat active service members dealing with stress disorders.
“The health and quality of life of our men and women in a uniform could be really improved,” he says.
Hillier says marijuana can be more effective in treating the PTSD symptoms than the anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals that the military health system prescribes. The forces and Veterans Affairs should offer the best treatment for members with PTSD, just as they would for soldiers with physical injuries sustained on duty, he says.
“They have a legal and moral obligation to fix you.”
– Article originally from The Montreal Gazette.