CASCADE, Colorado — Matt Stys funnels a mound of finely ground God’s Gift, a sativa strain of marijuana, into his multicolored glass bowl and takes a hit. “It allows the images and all the things in your head to lose focus and drift away for a while,” says Stys as wisps of smoke curl from his mouth. For Stys, the images of being a noncommissioned officer running an entry control point in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 can fade away with the smoke: recollections of struggling to differentiate potential combatants from Iraqi citizens, of watching the wounded and dead flowing through his security checkpoint. Other demons in his head can waft away too, like the memories of spending his teenage years in foster care, and the moral ache of questioning the war in which he fought.
“I had this misconception that we were over here to help Iraq,” he says. “But we were just there to destroy a nation.”
These images and anguish caused the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to diagnose Stys, 43, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), along with service-related shoulder, knee and ankle injuries this past March, six years after getting out of the Army. Stys sees a VA therapist, but he’s not taking drugs for his condition — that is, except for cannabis, for which he has a Colorado medical marijuana card. He says the marijuana helps him sleep, manage anxiety and avoid succumbing to road rage. And cannabis helps Stys avoid the other substance he’s used to keep the images away: alcohol, which led him to fall asleep behind the wheel in 2009. He somehow managed to avoid ending up dead or in jail.
“No one is saying this is a cure-all, but it is a cure,” says Stys, his dark, tired eyes gazing out the window of his mountainside cabin. “There has to be a nuanced understanding of what cannabis is, how it affects people, how it can help with pain management, PTSD and war wounds.”