Ukraine war: Cannabis in focus for off-duty soldiers

Ukraine war: Cannabis in focus for off-duty soldiers

In a modest Kyiv apartment, off-duty soldiers meet to smoke cannabis and forget, for a moment, the things they have seen.

They don't want to be identified. The drug is frowned upon in the military, even here, far from the front.

One of the soldiers is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"For me, cannabis is helpful," he says. "Without it, I can't sleep. It helps me to relax. Everybody should be able to get it."

After 18 months of full-scale war, and eight years of simmering conflict before that, Ukraine's physical and psychological wounds run deep. The state's resources are stretched to the limit.

The war has triggered an epidemic of pain and trauma, among soldiers and civilians alike.

Last year, the health ministry estimated that 57% of Ukrainians were at risk of developing PTSD.

But cannabis, widely accessible on the street and decriminalised in small amounts for personal use, is still not available for medical research, despite evidence that it can help.

Our soldiers on the front line need different powerful weapons - we need an arsenal as well

Kseniia Vosnitsyna - Forest Glade Rehab Facility

At the Forest Glade Centre for Psychological Health and Rehabilitation of Veterans, just outside Kyiv, treatment takes many forms.

In one room, a soldier plays a video game while a doctor monitors his brain activity.

Elsewhere, there's acupuncture, physical therapy and group counselling.

But the staff say they need more tools.

"Our soldiers on the front line need different powerful weapons. It's exactly the same with us," says Kseniia Vosnitsyna, Forest Glade's director.

"We need an arsenal as well. The broader it is, the more effective our treatment can be."

Ms Vosnitsyna is among those pushing for cannabis, MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics like psilocybin to be explored in the treatment of traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

She says many veterans are already self-medicating.

"They take it not to get high, but to get rid of the symptoms which bother them," she says. "Of course they often do it more than they need, but at the moment, there's no other way. Unfortunately."

Danylo Yevtukhov says smoking cannabis got him through some of his darkest days.

He suffered terrible burns to his face and hands during the Russian siege of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, in the early weeks of the war.

Seven operations and 18 months later, wearing a forage cap and tinted glasses to protect his damaged eyes, he's almost matter-of-fact when he recalls the searing pain.

"Everybody knows pain when it burns. Multiply that by 20 or 50," Danylo says when we meet in a park in Kyiv's Podil neighbourhood.

"It was terrible because it was on my face."

The park is small but full of reminders of conflict.

At one end, a plaque commemorates Ukrainian soldiers who died while fighting for the Soviet army in Afghanistan. At the other, there's a cross to remember those killed in Ukraine since 2014, when fighting broke out in the south-eastern Donbas region.

In the early days, Danylo says cannabis was more effective than painkillers. It helped him to sleep, eat and feel less nervous.

"It was like being able to switch off. When I thought about my injuries, I thought 'yes that's painful', but my attention started to be more flexible."

The doctors, he said, generally turned a blind eye.

Around the world, research has long suggested cannabis may be useful in the treatment of pain and PTSD. But here in Ukraine, the law gets in the way. The production of marijuana, including for medical research, is banned.

Professor Viktor Dosenko from the National Academy of Science, is frustrated.

"We have to do clinical research, to get more convincing evidence that it works," he says, "because we really are the global epicentre of PTSD."

We have to do clinical research [on cannabis]... because we're the global epicentre of PTSD

Professor Viktor Dosenko - Ukraine National Academy of Science

"Unfortunately, none of this research was ever done in Ukraine because we have a law that forbids it."

President Volodymyr Zelensky wants to change the law. Addressing parliament on 28 June, he called for legalising cannabis-based medicine, scientific research and what he called "controlled Ukrainian production".

"All the world's best practices… no matter how difficult or unusual they may seem to us, should be applied in Ukraine so that Ukrainians, men and women… do not have to endure the pain, stress and trauma of war," he said with evident passion.

A draft law aimed at creating a regulated domestic industry for medical cannabis passed a first reading in mid-July, but did not change the status of cannabis as a prohibited substance, causing widespread confusion.

It also banned the import of raw ingredients until 2028, which critics say will not help to address the current emergency.

"The law is not about helping people today," says Serhiy Vlasenko, of the opposition Motherland party.

"The law is about growing marijuana in Ukraine and making that big business, private business."

With the country in the midst of an existential crisis and the police frequently accused of corruption, Mr Vlasenko says President Zelensky's proposed reforms are dangerous.

"Today, in the period of war, such risky businesses should be controlled directly by the government," he says.

Without strict government controls, Mr Vlasenko believes, the law could become a vehicle for corruption and criminal activity.

According to one recent opinion poll, 70% of Ukrainians favour the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes.

But with the government divided on how to move forward - the health ministry in favour of licensed production and the interior ministry opposed to the draft bill - there's no obvious sign of a solution.

For those seeking relief from pain and trauma, self-medication remains, for now, the only option.

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Region: Ukraine

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