Combat Cookies is an in-house Girl Scout Cookies phenotype developed by the Santa Cruz Veteran’s Alliance (SCVA). SCVA’s mission is to support veterans. This cannabis strain is offered for its ability to treat the symptoms of PTSD as well as pain and is thus ideal for treating the ailments of combat veterans.
Before discussing the specifics of this strain, it is important to understand the issues facing combat veterans and how cannabis and organizations like SCVA can help.
The US first invaded Iraq in 2003. At the height of the war, the US had around 166,000 troops in Iraq. Although the combat mission technically ended in 2010, as of December 2017, there were still 5,200 American forces in the nation according to the Pentagon.
The situation in Afghanistan is even bleaker. The almost 17-year old conflict continues with the Taliban still going strong. In 2017, Trump increased the number of ground troops by about 50 percent, to roughly 14,000. It is the longest foreign war in US history with 100,000 US and allied troops deployed in Afghanistan at the war’s peak in 2011. Soon there will be adults who have lived their entire lives with the US at war in Afghanistan.
Altogether about 4 million people have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, totaling almost 1.25 percent of America’s current population.
Veterans, health issues, and PTSD
As these conflicts have ever so slowly wound down, society has seen the effects of war on the millions of veterans gradually reintegrating into civilian life. A record high average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day in the US, which translates to one suicide every 65 minutes. That is the kind of statistic you may need to pause and absorb for a moment.
According to a CNN report, in addition to a variety of physical ailments common to combat veterans, a large number of combat veterans also come home with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A congressionally mandated study earlier this year found that almost half of these veterans fail to receive the mental healthcare they need.
A 2011 study showed veterans were twice as likely to die from an opioid overdose as the general population. According to a 2014 study as many as 15 percent of veterans regularly use opioid medications.
What is needed is a treatment that alleviates PTSD symptoms and offers pain relief with minimal side effects, thereby minimizing the need for opioids. The evidence points to medicinal cannabis.
There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence for the use of cannabis to treat PTSD symptoms, especially among veterans. But the evidence goes beyond the anecdotal. Recent research has shown that PTSD patients have lower levels of an endogenous cannabinoid called anandamide. Anandamide triggers the same receptors that are activated by smoking cannabis. This suggests that cannabis can help treat PTSD by actually helping to replace the missing endocannabinoids. Martin Lee, PTSD researcher and director of project CBD, told Leafly:
“Scientists have determined that normal CB-1 receptor signaling deactivates traumatic memories and endows it with the gift of forgetting….but skewed CB-1 signaling, due to endocannabinoid deficits (low serum levels of anandamide), results in impaired fear extinction, aversive memory consolidation, and chronic anxiety, the hallmarks of PTSD.”
A veteran’s view on cannabis and mental health
Matthew T. McDermott served two tours in Iraq, the first in southern Iraq, and the second in Mosul, leaving Iraq as a US Army Specialist in 2012. He moved to Santa Cruz from upstate New York last year. I asked him a few questions about his experience and the role that cannabis now plays in his life.
Were you into cannabis before the Army?
I started really smoking around 14, but my relationship to it was completely different after the Army. When I was a kid, I was really just looking to get high, generally mixing weed with alcohol or other drugs. When I got out, I realized different strains made me feel different ways. That’s when I started to do research and found out ‘wow’, this is actually a real thing that veterans use.
You always have to talk to counselors when you come back from Iraq. It’s called a debriefing. I was diagnosed with PTSD damn near as soon as I got out. I knew that I was having issues – anxiety, insomnia, nervousness and extreme displeasure at being around crowds of strangers. I was never a big fan of those situations anyway, but it was worse after the Army. It got to the point where, when I got out of the military, I spent six months in the woods because I just felt like I needed to be away from everyone.
And a big part of that was that I had a giant bag of weed that whole time. I was deescalating myself. I had to, because when you’re in Iraq, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder – even when you’re just going about your day. It’s beaten into you to have constant awareness at all times. When I first got back, I was constantly looking in windows and on top of buildings because I still had that in me. I needed to be not just alert but hypervigilant at all times. It saves your life when you’re in the military.
With weed, you get a nice indica. It’s like a nice big cup of who gives a fuck. You’re going to relax, everything’s going to be ok, and you’re not worried about it. The other part was getting my dog, a service animal. If someone is nearby unexpectedly, she tells me so that I don’t have to worry about my back.
Do other veterans you know use cannabis? Can they access it when they need it?
Pretty much all of my friends from the military who I’m still in contact with smoke weed. In California, it’s easy to access the right strains, but in New York, it’s whatever you can get. And, of course, you can get arrested for it. California is awesome about it, especially the SCVA which is mostly staffed by vets. I don’t always like other veterans, but I trust them generally. I can say ‘I’m feeling this way, and they’ll say ‘Oh yeah, this is the strain you want. Can’t sleep? This is the one you want.’ Plus, it is provided at a great discount.
Do veterans tend to get the mental healthcare they need? What is your experience with this?
It varies state to state. New York had a pretty good program, but the first thing they gave me was Zoloft. I felt lazy on it. I felt like a zombie. I didn’t want to do anything. I would get up, go to work, come home, and drink myself to sleep. Then I went on Ativan when I said I didn’t like Zoloft. I told them I didn’t want to do this, that I knew New York had a new medical marijuana program. This was in 2015, when it was brand new. They said it was really hard to get into and you have to try these pills first. Even if we believe it’s not going to work, we have to try it first.
I only took Ativan for maybe three weeks, and it wasn’t any better. I didn’t get any help from either drug, and they had serious side effects. I also wasn’t really eating on either one. I had no appetite. That’s one of the things I didn’t like about the VA [Veteran’s Affairs]. I kept saying ‘This doesn’t work,’ and they kept trying. Also, I kept saying ‘I want to speak to a therapist’. I ended up with a sort of doctor in training who just kept bugging me to talk about what happened in Iraq, who I saw die - and that’s not what I wanted to talk about at all. That’s the last thing I wanted to talk about. Let me build up to that. Let me talk about what’s going on right now. I did not like the VA in New York at all.
I don’t have a lot of experience with California yet, but from everyone I’ve talked to, it seems like there are a lot more therapy options.
The other issue with the VA is that it takes so long to treat you for anything. The process is long and grueling, which is the last thing you need, especially when it’s not just a physical pain but mental anguish that can be insufferable. Once you’re on it, it still takes weeks to even know if something like Zoloft is going to help. And then there’s weed, which helps you immediately. You can be in the middle of an awful panic attack, and you can relax and take a couple hits. It’s not like the world’s problems get solved, but I feel like I’m more able to organize my thoughts and say ‘alright this isn’t so overwhelming’ when it’s in a nice little pile.
One thing I like about sativas is that they let your mind kind of go into overdrive, which enables me to organize things in my head a little bit. Too much can get me too introspective, but there’s a sweet spot where it’s helpful.
Any favorite strains?
Combat Cookies is a good one. Most things with a purple variant - anything in the Granddaddy Purple Family - generally make me very relaxed. I love the SCVA Kosher Kush. It doesn’t necessarily make me as sleepy as other indicas, but just very relaxed and happy.
What’s your take on legalization so far? What about the future?
I mean I think so far it’s been good. A lot of people get very upset, since you know, black market weed dealing is just poor people trying to make money. I always feel bad going to a store when I know there are probably poor people who would love to eat, and instead I’m giving money to some rich white guy. However, there’s a lot to be said for knowing exactly what you’re getting, for the exact reason I need it. I can look up the place where it was grown, look up lab tests, and see pictures of the facility. Like the whole recent thing with the new pesticide regulations in California, I’m sure [compliance] was very difficult for producers, but it’s a great thing because it’s becoming more legit.
I think it’s a self-fulling prophecy where if you make it illegal, and if you make it black market, then it’s going to be less medicinal for people. Because they don’t know what they’re getting and what might be in it, it perpetuates this concept of ‘drugs are just bad.’
Just make it easy to sell legally; make it so it’s not difficult to get into that business.
You hear about the Colorado DUI rates going down and opiate abuse going down. That’s a great thing. And it’s not just like ‘Oh they’re getting high on that now instead’. It’s because people are feeling better. Like for me, it helps your mind organize things. You don’t stress out as much, saying ‘Oh, it’s ok, actually. It’s not going to kill me. I’m going to be here tomorrow.’
Santa Cruz Veteran’s Alliance
The Santa Cruz Veteran’s Alliance was founded in 2011. According to its mission statement, the group “strives to be a community for veterans and supporters to reach out to one another.”
“We want to create a place for veterans to speak about their combat experiences and the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis, specifically as it relates to the traumas of war. We promote the medicinal benefits of cannabis and how to better address issues of pharmaceutical dependence, depression, anxiety, anger, and other ailments.”
SCVA grows cannabis and sells it to the general population like any dispensary, but its Veteran Compassion Program (VCP) also provides free cannabis to veterans who have medical cannabis recommendations. Because the main downside of opting for medical cannabis over pharmaceuticals is the substantial expense, which is not covered by insurance, the importance of this program cannot be overstated. There should be more programs like this across the country.
In addition, SCVA provides veteran discounts even to recreational customers. The cannabis itself is largely grown by veterans and other volunteers. The practice is called horticulture therapy and has been used by veterans since World War I. According to the SCVA website, “Bringing a veteran into the cannabis garden teaches them a new skill, gives them community, allows them to know their medicine, and provides a peaceful environment.”
SCVA is located in a quiet, inconspicuous, out-of-the-way office building far from the near-constant chaos of downtown Santa Cruz. It’s one of a long row of identical, nondescript entryways, and you might even wonder if you’re in the right place until you step inside. But once you are through the doors, you will not have any doubt. It is a smaller space than many dispensaries and the smell really hits you when you walk in. Where you might expect the neutral, artificial scent of printer toner, you are instead surrounded by an especially thick cloud of high-quality cannabis and extract aromas.
The dispensary is more boutique than superstore. There aren’t 40 different varieties of cannabis. Taking one look at the striking, crystal-lined, vibrant appearance of almost every bud behind the glass, it’s clear that quality matters more than quantity. The selection does cover all the main bases, of course. For example, within categories like “heavy indica,” you may find one or two choices rather than four or five. But those buds are picture perfect and, in my experience, extremely powerful. In addition to Combat Cookies, SCVA is known for its powerful, in-house Kosher Kush, which can also be found in other dispensaries across Santa Cruz.
Noting that other free cannabis programs have suffered as a result of Prop 64, I asked SCVA communication director Seth Smith, a Navy veteran, what effect legalization has had on SCVA’s mission.
According to Smith:
“Legalization hasn’t affected our mission at all. We’ve been in close contact with the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, the California Department of Food 7 AG, the California Department of Public Health, and the California Department of Taxes and Fee Administration to ensure clarification for the regulations, ensuring that we are still able to donate free cannabis to military veterans with doctor recommendations,” he said in an email. “To our knowledge, we are the only dispensary in California that has continued to donate free cannabis to a medical patient population since implementation of Prop 64 on January 1st of this year.”
Smith told me that Combat Cookies is “our in-house GSC pheno. We’ve had [it] for a few years now. It’s a great hybrid for light energy and muscle relaxation. We find that most veterans prefer indicas and heavy hybrids because they’re using cannabis for issues like sleep and pain management.”
Girl Scout Cookies itself has roots in California and is an ultra-popular cross between relaxing OG Kush and the invigorating sativa strain Durban Poison. It is known for a balance of euphoria and pain relief and a variety of phenotypes including Thin Mint, Key Lime Pie, and Platinum Cookies.
Combat Cookies is SVCA’s unique take on this superstar west coast strain. The buds have a light purple tinge, which is almost always a great sign for indica lovers. They are dense, with an overall muted mint green appearance and generous, snowy, trichome coverage. The aroma is rich, slightly sweet, and a bit grapey - definitely more reminiscent of an indica like GDP than a sour, pungent sativa or hybrid. According to SCVA’s lab test, Combat Cookies clocks in at almost 24 percent THC, a substantial, if not overwhelming, percentage.
For me, Combat Cookies offers many of the benefits of a heavy indica with the relaxing versatility of a hybrid. As an indica fan myself, Girl Scout Cookies has always been a favorite option when it comes to hybrids, and Combat Cookies is no different. In fact, it may lean a little bit more heavily in the indica direction than standard Girl Scout Cookies, and Smith’s description of “heavy hybrid” really rings true. There is a degree of cerebral, head-focused mental haze, but it is quickly overtaken by a strong body component that can certainly lead to couchlock. The combination of body heaviness and couchlock with a degree of mental euphoria may get you thoroughly absorbed in an activity like a video game, movie, or Wikipedia surfing, with a couple hours flying by before you even bother to look at the clock. Be warned.
Perhaps it is this “in the moment” quality that could appeal to someone with PTSD. Instead of being caught up in past memories or future anxieties, Combat Cookies and similar cannabis strains make it relatively easy to get wrapped up in whatever you are doing in the present. As discussed earlier, there is even some neurochemical basis for this idea, as well as plenty of first-hand accounts like Matthew’s.
In the same way that eating a meal can connect people to the political, social, and economic realities faced by those cooking and eating that food every day, experiencing cannabis has the potential to connect you to the experiences of those growing and regularly consuming it. What began as a simple idea to review Combat Cookies and provide some background information led me to discover some harsh realities for combat veterans, a local dispensary and community that is unique in the state and, perhaps, the whole country, and some jaw-dropping statistics about life for veterans in the US. The fight for legal cannabis is about more than the right to enjoy a recreational activity that hurts no one. For many, it is also a struggle to obtain a better quality of life by alleviating physical and mental pain without addiction.