People: Leo Bridgewater
An advocate and business consultant speaks out for veterans’ rights to access cannabis.
Born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, Leo Bridgewater graduated from Trenton Central High School in 1994. Seven years later, he watched the September 11 attacks with the rest of the nation on TV. Deeply stirred by the scenes of terrorism, he enlisted in the United States Army, where for five years he was a telecommunications specialist. It was a high-pressure assignment that saw him reporting to top-ranking officers during multiple deployments to the Middle East.
According to the former soldier, three of his battle buddies attempted suicide because they couldn’t cope with the aftereffects of combat. “Two of my friends were successful in taking their lives,” Bridgewater says. “The number of veteran suicides averages 22 a day. I find that totally unacceptable.”
There are 17.4 million veterans in the United States, according to the most recent census in 2019. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is highly comorbid with cardiovascular disease, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, and various mental health issues. An internal study by the VA shows that veterans are underserved by the 1,074 outpatient sites and 170 VA Medical Centers available to them.
For Bridgewater and countless other veterans with PTSD, access to cannabis may represent a life-or-death outcome. Although he and others are working diligently to improve access and secure better health care for veterans, it’s a vast, challenging, and complex situation.
Improving Access to Cannabis
There are 17 symptoms associated with PTSD. Although each person’s experience is unique, common symptoms occur. These include vivid flashbacks of traumatic events, panic attacks, anxiety, self-destructive or aggressive behavior, being extremely alert (hypervigilance) or feeling numb and unable to connect with others, and insomnia, with vivid nightmares when exhaustion gives way to troubled sleep.
“My PTSD diagnosis comes from my multiple tours in Iraq and is classified as battlefield PTSD,” Bridgewater says. “It manifests itself in the replaying of old firefights with different endings. My wife and son would often bleed into my dreams and I would fight harder. I always woke up more tired than when I went to bed.” But when he uses cannabis, he sleeps like a baby.
After separating from the Army in 2006, Bridgewater spent two and a half years working for the Department of the Army at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A staunch advocate for veterans’ right to access to cannabis, Bridgewater testified before the New Jersey Senate Committee to have PTSD added to the New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program. Those efforts were successful. In September 2016, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey signed bill S-2345, making PTSD the first qualifying condition related to mental health in New Jersey’s program.
Because race and culture greatly affect cannabis issues, Bridgewater serves as National Director of Veterans Outreach with Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana (M4MM), providing advocacy, education, and training to help people enter cannabis-related businesses and influence social reform, public policy, and health and wellness in the cannabis industry. His vision is to create a future wherein cannabis-based companies provide minorities with opportunities in successful commerce, education, and better health care. Leadership changes, he says, are necessary to getting cannabis legalized, as new forward-thinkers replace those who have continuously opposed cannabis. Bridgewater explains that M4MM welcomes positive engagement with the health care sector. Among the membership and executive leadership, he observes, are “individuals with extensive backgrounds in medicine. We are always willing to provide information and tools to help the needs of any community,” he says.
Bridgewater also is an advisory board member for Cannabis World Conference Business Expo, an organization that works to legalize and legitimize the cannabis industry. And as a medical advisory board member for the multistate cannabis company MPX NJ, Bridgewater lends expertise to the development of products for consumer and medical industries.
In recognition for his advocacy, Harmony, a dispensary in Secaucus, New Jersey, named a cannabis strain after Bridgewater. “The process to develop BridgeH2O was not what I expected and quite an enlightening experience,” he says. “The trial-and-error process required me to take a deep dive into understanding why I respond to certain terpene profiles.” Harmony Dispensary lists the dominant terpenes in Bridge H2O as beta-caryophyllene, limonene, myrcene, and humulene. “The first time I consumed BridgeH2O, I got 10 hours of sleep with no dreams,” Bridgewater says. “My sleep pattern was corrected within one week. I noticed that I didn’t dread the idea of going to bed.”
Another benefit of his cannabis use was that it allowed him to gain an emotional distance so he could identify “triggers”—stimuli or events that activate PTSD symptoms. He hasn’t yet spoken with many veterans who have consumed BridgeH20, but he has had conversations with many medical cannabis patients through the New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program, Bridgewater says. “The BridgeH2O strain seems to have a similar effect on people dealing with trauma, even if it’s not associated with the battlefield like mine.”
Barriers for Veterans
Lack of education is the biggest issue in the cannabis industry as a whole, Bridgewater says. Cannabis supporters are attempting to overcome decades of misinformation, he adds, referring to “‘Just Say No’—the late 1980s antidrug campaign message—and other government-supported propaganda.” He’s calling on people to move forward from old-fashioned images of cannabis users as “stoners” and instead to have discussions about cannabis that revolve around science, technology, engineering, and health care potential. The Department of Defense leadership and the VA lack a fundamental understanding of this plant, he says. Time is of the essence to help veterans not only stay healthy, Bridgewater explains, but also perhaps to help them stay alive.
Waiting until the end of a military career to get adequate care may not work. “Our active-duty personnel are truly voiceless in this fight because they cannot advocate on their own behalf as long as they are in uniform,” Bridgewater says. “I think it’s reasonable to give active-duty personnel medically monitored access to cannabis. If cannabis therapy is available to active-duty personnel before they separate from military service, it could have a meaningful impact and support veterans instead of abandoning them to coping methods that include opioid addiction and suicide.” Bridgewater believes veterans primarily should be responsible for the stewardship of the cannabis industry, because they stand to benefit so greatly.
The pandemic revealed an unexpected improvement in serving veteran populations. “In my veterans support group, the telehealth experience with our health care providers is something often discussed in a positive light,” Bridgewater explains. “Many of my veteran friends no longer worry if they are going to make their appointments,” he says, adding that many states communicated a clear message about the value of medical cannabis by deeming it essential during the pandemic.
We Need More Education
Bridgewater is surprised at the number of voters in his home state, of any ethnicity, who aren’t aware of how their vote could affect cannabis issues. And he believes that many people—including health care workers—don’t understand the challenges faced by combat veterans. He expresses it this way: “If this were a television show, I’m in season 8, episode 4. You’re in season 1, episode 7,” Bridgewater says, adding, “Spoiler alert: Cannabis is not a gateway drug. That’s the season 1 finale. We need you to binge watch and catch up to where the world is.
“I encourage CRx readers to engage your veteran community,” Bridgewater says. “When armed with the right information, we can move mountains in any state capitol building and in Washington, D.C.”
— Michele Deppe is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.