The debate continues to rage over whether veterans should be given the right to consume cannabis to combat post-traumatic stress disorder. But one marijuana advocate can reveal from firsthand experience how far the military needs to come before it can accept what it sees as the demon weed.
Forrest Rosenbach was expelled from the US Army in 2015 after being court-martialed and sentenced to jail for being found in possession of a wooden pipe with a tiny scraping of resin.
Following his arrest, Rosenbach says he was forced to endure a campaign of punishment, humiliation and verbal abuse by his superiors in a bid to make an example of him for consuming cannabis.
Speaking to Big Buds, Rosenbach, who lives in Elizabeth Lake, California, says of his experience, “I try not to think about what happened. I have to compartmentalize it to cope with it. Being stuck in these memories, which aren’t the greatest, is horrible. It was a very unpleasant time.”
Now working in electronic security, the 32-year-old says he was called “scum of the earth,” was forced to scrub the latrines, braved a 12-mile run while strapped into full military gear that weighed up to 70 pounds, and had to do hours of pushups to top off his grueling run.
He was also made to sit in a chair for up to 15 hours a day on watch duty.
And the veteran says he was also unwillingly sent to a church to be baptized — even though he’s Jewish.
Rosenbach, who served his country for more than 10 years and was based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, recalls the day he and the rest of 101st Airborne Division were subjected to a random search of their quarters.
“We had a health and welfare search instead of going through our usual physical training. We were in front of our barracks, and military and federal police went through them with drug-sniffing canines and went from room to room. The dogs found a wooden pipe in my rucksack, which had to be sent away for testing. From that testing it was determined that the pipe had contained marijuana at some point. There was resin residue that was scraped out and put it in a field drug kit.
“The chemicals turned the right color to show it contained THC, so they embarrassed me and then had me drug tested, where I was further embarrassed [while] someone watched me piss in a cup,” Rosenbach remembers.
“This was not a performance matter in any way, shape or form. I was all you can be as an army of one. I really believed in what I was doing. I did really well and I kicked ass in the field.”
Rosenbach recollects that on the day of the search, he “was pulled out of line when we were in formation and I was made an example of in front of our entire company by the first sergeant. He called me the scum of the earth. I can’t remember the exact words, but he made me feel like a piece of shit, to be blunt.
“And that started a campaign against drugs. There were weekly random drugs testing for a lot of the soldiers in our unit and company in general.”
Having been compelled by his positive experiences with cannabis to become a key player in two major legislative field campaigns — California’s Proposition 19, the Marijuana Legalization Initiative, and Washington Initiative 502 — Rosenbach joined the military when he was just 17 because he says he wasn’t close to his family.
“At that point in my life, I had been pretty much on my own as a teen. I was living on my own, paying my way. Joining the military at 17 allowed me to get on track, allowed me to go to school. Unfortunately, the [program] I was hoping to get into was not relevant because of my age and lack of education.
“I was offered a few options — admin, mechanical or infantry, and I went with that,” Rosenbach adds.
In late January, 2015, following his cannabis indictment and after getting minimal support and help from his military lawyer, Rosenbach was sent to Fort Knox to serve his sentence.
“It was a terrible experience,” he recalls. “Because I had been on antidepressants, they put me in a suicide watch cell. I was taking [antidepressants] because when we went on a 16-mile run, around nine miles I had an anxiety attack and I couldn’t breathe.
“[In the jail] there were no blankets, no clothes. … There was nothing in the cell at all, and I had to wear a paper gown, which frequently gaped open for my female warders to see everything. It was completely humiliating and degrading and something I desperately want to forget, but an experience I never will.”
When Rosenbach was finally released from military jail, he says he was “basically homeless.”
After trying to resettle in New Hampshire with his mother, he decided to give LA a shot. “[There] I thought I would be able to get a job — but everything fell apart,” he says, explaining, “I had to be honest about what had happened on job applications — I was naive, and of course I didn’t want to lie. You couldn’t do that or you would perjure yourself, and no one wanted to hire anyone from the military, never mind someone with my history.
“I was only able to get graveyard shifts and menial work, even though I was trying so hard to get myself in a better place,” Rosenbach continues. “No one would give me a break. I ended up trying to go to school and getting denied financial aid because of the drug conviction.”
With this denial of education further enraging him, Rosenbach also discovered that had he been convicted of far worse crimes, he would still have been able to get financial support.
“I realized I could have raped, murdered and embezzled,” he says. “But because I had smoked weed, dear Lord I couldn’t do anything or get anything!”
It was this frustrating experience that led Rosenbach to get involved as one of the co-founders of CommunityCann, a community-based cannabis-policy reform organization.
Indeed, Rosenbach has borne witness to how cannabis can help people who are suffering from serious illness, having watched his own father Charles fight and eventually lose his battle with lymphoma cancer.
“[My dad] was very reluctant at first to use cannabis with his treatment, largely because of the stigma, the idea his doctors might find out. He didn’t really use it at first, but then started using it to combat symptoms — he started to lose motor function and become lethargic and not there,” Rosenbach explains.
“When I visited Pops, his preferred means [of consuming cannabis] was me rolling a joint. We would sit around and he would come back — it was like he was there again. It was crazy.”
Charles succumbed to his cancer in 2013, but Rosenbach says he was glad he was able to gift him that relief as he battled on.
Despite being such a vocal advocate of cannabis legalization, Rosenbach admits he has had to pull back from continuing his pronounced support for medical marijuana policy reform — because he faces losing full visitation rights with his nine-year-old daughter Isis Aaliyah.
“When I went to court [to fight for visitation rights for] my daughter with my ex-fiancée,” Rosenbach explains, “her lawyers were difficult to combat and I spent over $10,000 for one lawyer for six months — it was a nightmare. [So] I had to back off everything I was doing, for my daughter.
“I was threatened with losing time with her — [my ex’s lawyers] were pushing as far as getting supervised visits at a sheriff station when there was no cause for it. The best thing was for me to back off and normalize myself for the meantime — and it has improved relations. The conversations [between my ex and I] are a lot more amenable and not as chaotic as they used to be.”
However, Rosenbach is still a big supporter of the cause and would like to see positive, permanent change.
“What I would like to see is soldiers who are injured in battle, they can access medicine that doesn’t zonk them out, put them in a horrible place, and cause adverse reactions,” he says. “Antidepressants can have the side effect [of making] you suicidal, which is completely counterproductive.
Meanwhile, Rosenbach has taken part in a documentary feature film called Mile Marker, produced by his former battalion buddy Korey Rowe, in which Rowe speaks to a number of soldiers who have all suffered the debilitating effects of PTSD. Rowe examines how cannabis can help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety that so often plague military veterans.
Notably, Mile Marker focuses on the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment — known as the Rakkasans, which means “falling umbrella” in Japanese — as Rowe road trips 7,000 miles across the US and back to check in with his former troop.
“I feel like I am going to be a voice through this, showing the stories,” Rowe says to camera during the documentary. “And try to get a handle of life in America today.”
For the documentary, Rowe also interviews Chris Taylor, who twice served in psy-ops in Afghanistan.
Recalling his experience there, Taylor says, “I loved the people of Afghanistan. I loved helping them. I lost some friends and had some very close calls. From that first tour, I never really had time to decompress and think about what was happening. The second tour was even worse.
“When I came back that second time, I had a back injury, and the army prescribed me some opiates and I knew I had some issues.”
Taylor reveals how he soon developed an addiction to OxyContin, and then got busted for dealing drugs. His habit escalated into heroin use, sparking a protracted struggle to get his life back together.
Dr. Paula Schnurr, executive director for the National Center for PTSD, says, “What we are trying to do is put the best information where it needs to be. So you, as an individual veteran [can ask yourself], do you want treatment, do you even have PTSD? We want to offer something to you.”
Schnurr adds, “PTSD is something that happens to people when they have experienced a traumatic event. So, it can [occur from] being deployed to a war zone, or experiencing a sexual assault.”
Psychologist Rachel Stewart, also from the National Center for PTSD, says, “It affects someone’s overall quality of life, their ability to work, their ability to have quality relationships. … You don’t want to not sleep. You don’t want your fight or flight mode to kick in. People who have been in combat are automatically assessing threat wherever they go.”
John Harwood, who also served with the Rakkasans, says he still suffers today from the horrors of war: “Ears ringing, sleep is hard. I’ve had a drinking problem since — I black out three times a week sometimes. We don’t get high, we get numb.”
Rowe also speaks with his uncle Lawrence Keating, who served in the Vietnam War.
Keating recalls, “In Vietnam, you were there one day and here the next day.
This PTSD developed in Vietnam, because when the guys came back they didn’t assimilate well. And I didn’t assimilate well. If they came back and they were still in the military, they got a bad paper discharge. If you have that kind of experience, it is hard to come from one thing to the next.”
Codi Keto, a veteran from the 82nd Airborne Division who served in Afghanistan, recalls how one of his company died by suicide in his car the first weekend they were home: “That hit deep. It kept happening amongst our unit.”
Keto also witnessed the horror of one of his military friends shooting himself in the head.
“Finally, four or five months later, it really hit home. He got out of bed, got his pistol out — the look in his eyes was such a weird scenario — he pointed the gun at us in a sweeping motion. Then he stuck the gun to the back of his ear and pulled the trigger.”
A number of the soldiers interviewed for Mile Marker talk about how they were prescribed a cocktail of drugs, including benzos, opiates and Valium, as well as the tranquilizer Xanax.
However, they admit that above all else, it was cannabis that helped them recover from the horrors of war.
Keto now cultivates his own marijuana and uses it to treat his PTSD.
“I essentially replaced five pharmaceuticals with cannabis,” he says.
In 2017, Dr. Irene Aguilar, senator for District 32 of Denver, helped pass a bill to give veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD safe and legal access to medical marijuana. Interviewed for Mile Marker, Aguilar says the aim for veterans is to afford them “decreased symptoms and improved function with minimal side effects.”
“We have this plant that provides cannabinoids, which affect you in different ways,” Rosenbach says. “[Cannabis is] often a great antidepressant, helping you sleep — it’s a pain reliever. There needs to be more focus and studying on that.”
Mile Marker will be available exclusively through iTunes for the month of May. From June onward it will be available on DVD and through most VOD outlets, including Google Play and Amazon Prime.