Veterans and medical marijuana

By Chris Goldstein

A bill that would add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in New Jersey is now just one vote away from Governor Chris Christie’s desk. The measure saw unusually fast action today in Trenton, winning the approval at the full Assembly and a key Senate committee.

A457 passed an Assembly floor vote 55-14 with 7 abstentions at about noon. By 1PM the companion bill, S2345,  was before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Services Committee where military veterans were ready to testify.

US Army vet Leo Bridgewater, who served in Iraq said that “there’s no room for politics” when it comes to this issue. He played a voicemail that was left by a fellow solider before a suicide attempt.

“We were told we have the support of the American people no matter what,” said Bridgewater, explaining that the treatment he received for PTSD failed. Instead he found marijuana.

Bridgewater and others re-iterated the fact that 22 US military vets commit suicide every day.

Phil Dume, another vet who was originally born in Haiti, said that it is easy to get pills from the Veterans Affairs hospitals. He spoke of being homeless for nine months but never missing a refill on his Percocet.

Senator Joseph Vitale, the chairman of the committee, asked if the medications prescribed for PTSD from the VA helped Dume at all.

“Hell no, I was zombiefied. I even failed college. It was not working at all,” said Dume. Like so many others he found cannabis offered better relief.

Senator  Vitale told those gathered that he expected the bill to pass the Senate quickly. Jim Miller of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ) said “This could get to the Senate floor in June.”

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, there are nearly 475,000 vets living in the New Jersey. Many are categorized as Gulf War vets, a category that includes the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those who live with PTSD often have terrifying flashbacks, avoidance of friends and family, serious sleep disturbances and a variety of other symptoms. PTSD is currently treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and a variety of medications. Drugs such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Paxil are often used. It’s not just PTSD itself but also the side effects of the drugs used to treat it that are seen as the main factors in this disturbing trend of suicide.

For decades many vets have turned to underground cannabis. But there are hundreds of strains of the plant with a wide array of chemical profiles. Some varieties have high THC, others have a mix of THC and Cannabidiol (CBD). Not every strain works. As medical marijuana programs in California and other states opened, expanded and became easily accessible, more and more vets were able to refine their cannabis therapy.

Vets also faced an ominous problem; they were kicked out of free pain management programs at the VA hospitals if they tested positive for THC. They were regularly tested for drug levels to assure that they are taking their prescribed opiates.

In 2009 the VA instructed their network to stop kicking people out for pot. There’s a catch. Only if the individuals were registered in state medical marijuana programs could they test positive for THC. This left most vets in New Jersey out of luck.

VA doctors also can not sign off on cannabis therapy. All states require a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana. That means vets who do want to access cannabis have to pay out of pocket to another physician.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee did approve language in a funding package this May that could, one day, allow VA doctors to discuss and even recommend medical marijuana for their patients. But, again, that will only be in states that already have a program running.

It is also important to recognize that PTSD is not just for soldiers. We are living in an age with an epidemic of sexual violence that results in victims with PTSD. Police and firefighters are also common patients.

Those who live with PTSD too often fall into an opiate addiction. Medical marijuana can help here too.

In 2014 Dr. Michael Bachhuber MD, the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, found that painkiller overdose deaths are 25 percent lower in states with medical marijuana. His data made international headlines.

More importantly, the National Bureau for Economic Research published data that replicated those results.

The most crucial takeaway from the reports is that the dramatic decline in deaths is only seen in states that have easy access to medical marijuana. The researchers specifically excluded New Jersey because the Medicinal Marijuana Program is very limited with so few patients registered.

Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and director of CMMNJ, explained that 13 states have language to allow access to cannabis for those living with PTSD. Those states include Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

There was some brief opposition testimony at the Senate Health Committee hearing from the NJ Psychiatric Association. Senator Jim Whelan pointed out after their remarks the Catch-22 for scientific research on cannabis. Then Sen. Whelan summed up the sentiment of his colleagues saying that vets don’t have time to wait for studies, they need access to marijuana now.

It is unclear how Governor Christie will respond. In the past Christie has stated, several times, that he will not allow any expansions to the medical cannabis program. Right now the measure has earned significant bi-partisan support.

 

1 Comment
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