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Dapto veteran Derek Pyrah calls for free medical cannabis for PTSD sufferers

Fighting for others: Derek Pyrah wants Defence veterans like himself who have long-term PTSD to have access to free medical cannabis. Picture: Sylvia Liber

A Dapto air force veteran is calling on the government to subsidise medical marijuana for veterans suffering post traumatic stress.

Derek Pyrah has taken his cannabis fight to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, outlining his own battle with PTSD and approved medications and calling on the Minister for Veterans Affairs Andrew Gee to help.

In a 21-page submission to the commission, Mr Pyrah wrote that "DVA-approved psychotropic medications for PTSD treatment can leave a veteran in a worse condition mentally, emotionally and physically, and can lead to suicide".

Read more: Illawarra doctor on how cannabis products are used to treat medical conditions

"I believe medicinal cannabis is a better medication for PTSD as it counteracts each PTSD symptom without negative side effects and costs less than the current DVA approved and heavily subsidised cocktail of psychotropic medications.

"I am asking for DVA subsidised cannabis as an option to treat veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD."

'I didn't walk or talk the same. Nothing about me was the same'

Mr Pyrah enlisted in the air force in 1990, at the age of 15, as an apprentice aircraft mechanic. He retrained as a communications information systems controller and was deployed to Irag at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. He says he was initially happy to go and honoured to serve his country.

"I wanted to go. It's the culmination of what your job is," he said. "[But] war is not what you expect. Nothing goes to plan."

He was given back-to-back deployments, before returning to Australia at the end of 2003.

While he did not wish to discuss specifics, he said there were "multiple specific incidents" during his two deployments and he was a "different person" when he returned.

I am petitioning Andrew Gee to help us. If he really wanted to he could change this policy. All we want is for Minister Gee to recognise medical cannabis can save lives and keep families together.

"When I got back my wife and my family said I didn't walk the same, I didn't talk the same. Nothing was the same about me," he said.

He was soon getting into disagreements, driving defensively and obsessively checking the family car for bombs before anyone could get in. If he came to a traffic jam he would drive up on the pavement to get out of it. He knew himself something wasn't right so when his wife suggested he speak to the on-base doctor he did.

"He asked me to go down the corridor and wait in a room with a lot of chairs," he said.

It was the base psychologist and it marked the start of his formal battle with PTSD.

He left the air force in 2004 and soon found himself unemployable. While he looked good on paper, he could not get through a job interview.

"I was nervous, I could not maintain eye contact. I would almost soil myself," he said.

He went through the claims process for a Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) pension with relative ease due to the fact he had already been diagnosed with PTSD. After a dangerous period of self-medicating with alcohol, as many veterans do, he went down the DVA-approved treatment path.

During a nine-year period between 2006 and 2014, he was put on a cocktail of antipsychotics, antidepressants, mood stabilisers, benzodiazepines and other drugs. Each one had a side effect that had to be controlled with yet another drug.

But instead of getting better, he said it made his PTSD worse and turned him into a zombie. He was also hospitalised numerous times, for up to 100 days a year. He estimates the cost to the government of least $100,000 a year, and does not include medications and appointments with psycholgists and psychiatrists.

'The crippling anxiety I had immediately went away'

The turning point came in 2015. His marriage had broken down and was alone, broke and living with his mother. He saw an SBS documentary comparing two overseas veterans. One was being treated as he was, and was alone and miserable. The other was using medical cannabis and was happy and thriving.

He sourced some cannabis "from the street corner" and said the improvement was immediate. "The crippling anxiety I had 24-7 immediately it went away," he said.

His psychologist and psychiatrist noticed a difference and told him to keep doing whatever it was he was doing. He eventually weaned himself off all his medications, bar a very small dose of an anxiety medication.

In 2019, he applied to the DVA to ask them to consider supplying him with medical cannabis but was refused. He submitted three more applications, all of which were rejected.

In September 2020 he was arrested and charged with cannabis possession. United in Compassion stepped in and helped him fight the charges and gain access to medical cannabis.

Since then he has found ways to access medical cannabis on compassionate grounds but wants the DVA to make it available to all veterans suffering from PTSD.

While he credits medical cannabis for turning his life around, he fears he won't be able to afford to keep using it unless the DVA changes its policy. He estimates the cost at between $600 and $1000 a month, but said this was still cheaper than the alternatives.

He said at least 17 per cent of veterans were living with PTSD and the DVA approved drugs were making them worse and leading to suicidal ideations.

In 2021, he started a petition to ask the Ministers for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel to have the Department of Veterans Affairs to subsidise medical cannabis for veterans who suffer PTSD. He set a target of 25,000 signatures and has so far collected 16,705.

Mr Pyrah said many countries, including the USA, Canada and Israel, now supplied subsidised its use among veterans.

He hopes his submission to the royal commission gets the attention of the minister.

"The medications they are providing are making us worse. They are driving us to suicide," he said.

"I am petitioning Andrew Gee to help us. If he really wanted to he could change this policy. All we want is for Minister Gee to recognise medical cannabis can save lives and keep families together."

Details: You can view the petition by clicking here Originally published here:

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