Wounded Warrior envisions change in rehabilitation for fellow veterans
By Lukas Barfield
After seven years of service in the Marines, Sean Major continues to support his fellow veterans through cannabis activism.
The 26 -year-old former Marine sergeant believes high-CBD medical cannabis is safer and more effective for veterans’ recuperation than pharmaceutical options, and he wants to raise awareness and foster change. While finishing his military career in the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, California, Major worked as an intern at two cannabis-related companies in San Diego. He was medically discharged from the Marines in May, and leaves with the deep scars of multiple brain injuries.
He hopes cannabis will be able to replace a jarring regimen of pharmaceuticals.
“I have to take pharmaceuticals to counteract effects from other pills I’m prescribed to treat my 33 medical conditions, and if I could use medical cannabis, I wouldn’t have all those side effects,” Major says.
During his military service, he was not allowed to use cannabis, and was drug tested bi-weekly.
His ultimate goal is to help other veterans through cannabis therapy. He believes some pharmaceutical solutions to veterans’ illnesses are doing more harm than good.
“I have lost more brothers- and sisters-in-arms to pharmaceuticals than to combat,” Major says.
Major claims the Marines could scale back on using pharmaceuticals in favor of high-CBD medical cannabis for treating the most severely injured Wounded Warriors.
“I’m not advocating, nor do I condone, the use of marijuana for active-duty service members,” he says. “I’m only talking about Marines already on their way out due to extreme medical conditions using the safer, natural alternative — non-euphoric, high-CBD medical cannabis.”
Major’s theory runs directly counter to the current Marine Corps policy. The current classification of the cannabis plant as a Schedule I drug precludes its use among Marines, even in the Wounded Warriors, but there is mounting evidence to suggest that marijuana has the potential to mitigate PTSD symptoms. Major believes drawing attention to this paradox can save lives.
DEA green-lights PTSD study
The subject of medical marijuana for veterans has recently garnered widespread attention, as health care providers search for ways to effectively treat the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Several advocacy groups have formed across the country either to provide medical cannabis to suffering veterans or to campaign on behalf of legal access — The Weed for Warriors Project, Grow for Vets USA, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, Veterans for Compassionate Care and more.
In April, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a landmark decision to allow researchers to investigate whether cannabis can effectively treat PTSD.
The team of researchers, including Dr. Sue Sisley, have been working for nearly a decade to gain approval for a placebo-controlled clinical trial on PTSD, according to a Denver Post story.
“Mostly we’re just grateful that we get to see science move forward,” Sisley told the Denver Post.
It is the first time the DEA has ever granted permission for research into marijuana use and PTSD. Sisley and her fellow researchers are lining up 76 veterans to participate in the study at clinics in Arizona and Baltimore. The University of Colorado will analyze blood samples and provide oversight for scientific integrity, while marijuana will be provided by the federally-sanctioned farm at the University of Mississippi. The study is funded by a $2.165 million grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and sponsored by the California-based nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
According to a MAPS press release, “The trial will gather safety and efficacy data on four potencies of smoked marijuana with varying ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). By exploring the effectiveness of a variety of marijuana strains, the study seeks to generate naturalistic data comparable to how many veterans in medical marijuana states currently use marijuana. Results will provide vital information on marijuana dosing, composition, side effects and areas of benefit to clinicians and legislators considering marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.”
“We are thrilled to see this study overcome the hurdles of approval so we can begin gathering the data,” says Amy Emerson, director of clinical research for the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation.
Sean Major grew up in Spokane, Washington, but he lived in south Seattle for a time after his parents divorced. Like so many young men of his generation, Sept. 11, 2001 cemented his life goal to join the military.
He enlisted in the Marines in January 2009. He survived the chaos, culture shock and sleep deprivation of boot camp, while developing a reputation for being headstrong. He was soon deployed as an ordnance technician on the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard in the Pacific fleet.
Aboard that Navy ship, Major suffered his first of four traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) when a helicopter’s 20-millimeter gun turret slammed into his hip and knocked him to the ground. His head collided with the deck of the ship.
“I don’t remember the impact,” Major says. “The first thing I remember was looking up at the sky as my shaded goggles were ripped off my face. I knew something bad happened … I couldn’t feel my leg and I dared not look.”
It took Major a week to walk unassisted, but the TBI went undiagnosed.
“I’ve had trouble with my balance ever since,” he says. “I still see a specialist for my balance at the Naval Hospital.”
By 2012, loved ones began to notice Major had changed. He was distant, agitated and overwhelmed with social anxiety. He suffered early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Desperate to be a different person, he legally changed his name from Sean Fitzpatrick to Sean Major.
He suffered his second TBI after jumping out of a moving car during a PTSD-induced episode of paranoia. The Marine believed he was being taken somewhere against his will, and he “escaped” by jumping out of the vehicle at about 35 mph.
This TBI also went undiagnosed. It took Major a full year to recover.
Yet, against the advice of his stepfather, he reenlisted in January 2013.
Major would suffer two more TBIs in November 2014 — one playing football, the other training in a martial arts program. Major says his brain injuries were finally diagnosed following a brain scan in May 2015.
Eventually, it was determined that he should finish his time in the Marines as a member of the Wounded Warrior Battalion, a program that helps injured Marines transition back to full-duty service or to civilian life.
The Wounded Warrior Regiment, which carries out its mission with two regional battalions, focuses on four aspects of healing: mind, body, spirit and family.
Sgt. Sean Major took the unorthodox route of working on his mind when he enrolled at THC University in early fall of 2015, an online cannabis industry training program. While at Camp Pendleton, Major studied his coursework every chance he could.
“I would dress in business attire and study at the local coffee shop,” he says. “I worked so much, I completed four courses by November.”
During a routine meeting with his recovery care coordinator in December, Major revealed his plans to work in the cannabis industry. Major presented the certificates he’d earned from THC University and explained to the shocked RCC how he had been working on his mind. After considerable discussion up and down the chain of command, it was determined that Major could work as a security intern in San Diego’s cannabis industry.
After giving Major the green light to intern in the cannabis sector, the Marines contacted retired Marine Corps Capt. Mike Owen, owner of Fidelity Security Solutions and Vet Meds.
Vet Meds is a medical cannabis delivery service that is operated by and for disabled veterans by partnering with local collectives that grow organic cannabis. It was founded in collaboration with Vetality Corporation, a veteran-assistance organization that is designed to help veterans improve their mental health through employment. Vet Meds employs eight combat veterans who work as drivers, dispatchers and operators, giving Major the opportunity to learn different aspects of the business during his internship.
“The delivery service really helps get (cannabis) out to veterans who may otherwise not come to a dispensary or even know how much medical cannabis helps with PTSD,” Owen says.
“We’ve seen a lot of success with high-CBD, low-THC strains, like ACDC or Sangria, but many of our combat-seasoned customers use high-THC strains to help stimulate their appetite, soothe pain, alleviate anxiety and help with sleep.”
The organization delivers to 47 veterans in Southern California.
“Our primary reason for founding Vet Meds is to collect data to take to Congress to show the effectiveness of medical cannabis in treating PTSD, TBIs and other ailments related to military service,” Owen says. Proceeds from Vet Meds go toward funding a school safety program, Proactive Response against Youth-Violence (P.R.A.Y.).
Major also interns at Inda-Grow, an induction-lighting manufacturer in San Diego. He works at the company’s urban farm research-and-development facility, cultivating and trimming aquaponics-grown cannabis.
“You can really see that working on the farm centers Sean,” says Darrell Cotton, the owner of Inda-Grow.
At Inda-Grow, Major has discovered his passions: helping veterans through cannabis therapy and urban farming.
“Sean is eager for knowledge and works hard not just to learn about cannabis,” Cotton says. “He wants to know how all the plants work.”
As he looks ahead to his future outside of the Marine Corps, Major envisions himself operating an urban farm that would use horticultural therapy, in conjunction with medical cannabis, to help veterans transition back to civilian life.
He continues to suffer from PTSD and the symptoms resulting from four TBIs. When he does sleep, he often experiences terrifying nightmares. One of his goals is to eliminate the pharmaceuticals he’s relied on in the past. He knows it will be a challenge, but he is hopeful for the future — not just his own, but the futures of all Wounded Warriors.