Veterans, Lawmakers Argue Case to Use Medical Marijuana to Treat PTSD

Lilo H. Stainton | June 17, 2016 | Health Care
According to advocates, pot can often do more to relieve the debilitating symptoms of PTSD than conventional medical treatment

Edward "Lefty" Grimes (left), host of the "Sativa Cross" podcast, and Jim Miller, president of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey
Days after one Democratic Senator launched a new push to legalize marijuana, Garden State lawmakers in both houses advanced a bill Thursday that would add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of nearly a dozen serious medical conditions that can be legally treated with medical marijuana.

Advocates outside the statehouse lobbied in support of the bill (A-457). They included members of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, who hosted their “Sativa Cross” podcast from the plaza out front.

PTSD, which can cause debilitating anxiety, affects 8 million Americans — including as many as one in five veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, military personnel who witnessed bloody battles elsewhere, and victims of longtime abuse or violent crime. New Jersey is home to 428,000 veterans, as many as 20 percent of whom are affected by the disorder, according to the bill’s sponsors. (The Assembly also passed a resolution Thursday that seeks to increase awareness of PTSD.)

Veterans and a growing number of advocates have insisted that appropriate marijuana use can have a positive effect on PTSD sufferers, reducing anger, psychotic outbursts, flashbacks, severe anxiety, and other symptoms in ways that are more effective than opiates or anti-psychotic pharmaceuticals. But some physicians have cautioned there is limited evidence that pot is an effective or appropriate treatment.

Two dozen states operate medical marijuana programs and more than half of these make the drug available to PTSD patients. A handful of jurisdictions — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC — have made the drug legal for recreational purposes as well. Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union) returned from a visit to Colorado to describe to reporters on Tuesday how a well-run program here could generate at least $300 million in revenue from taxes and other sources.

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act was signed into law by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2010 but took years to implement under Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney who has called pot a “gateway drug.” A half-dozen centers are licensed to grow and sell marijuana to patients registered with the state program, and five are in operation; national experts have said the limited number of outlets is one reason New Jersey’s program is quite restrictive. By the end of 2015, more than 6,000 patients had enrolled.

The New Jersey law permits patients with certain diseases and conditions – including seizure disorders, glaucoma, AIDS, cancer, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and terminal cancer, among others — to obtain pot from a state-licensed facility if they have a prescription from a doctor with whom they have an ongoing clinical relationship. In some cases, patients must exhaust more traditional treatments before they can be eligible for the marijuana program.

The legislation proposed yesterday would add PTSD to this list, if the symptoms are resistant to conventional medical therapy, like psychotherapy combined with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. The Assembly version – sponsored by Democratic Assemblymen Vincent Mazzeo (Atlantic), Tim Eustace (Bergen), Reed Gusciora (Mercer) and Jamel Holley (Union) – passed with bipartisan support and no debate. The Senate Health Committee approved a companion version sponsored by Scutari and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who chairs the panel.

The Senate committee heard passionate testimony from a number of veterans who described the anguish of watching their military buddies struggle with — and sometimes succumb to — suicide once they returned from war-torn regions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The soldiers described trying to dull the pain with alcohol or opiates provided by doctors at Veterans Administration facilities. For some, marijuana has proved an effective way — with minimal side effects — to calm their nerves and navigate the stresses of daily life back home.

Leo Bridgewater spent four years in northern Iraq before returning to Trenton recently. Three of his buddies attempted suicide; two were successful. “I can’t help but think that if all three had access to medical marijuana that Mike and Charlie would still be here,” Bridgewater said. “There’s no room for politics here. These are real lives. By the time I’m finished testifying here, we may have lost one or two other veterans.”

Dr. Joseph Napoli, a PTSD and trauma expert who represented the New Jersey Psychiatric Association, agreed better treatments are certainly needed, as nearly 40 percent of patients don’t respond to the usual mix of psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals. But there’s little proof that marijuana is effective either, he said. “It’s very sparse evidence,” Napoli said.

Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) insisted that veterans should not have to wait years for medical trials to prove marijuana can be helpful, especially when anecdotal evidence strongly suggests it can ease many PTSD symptoms. Representatives from New Jersey chapters of the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union also supported the measure, which was received with bipartisan, but not universal, support in committee. The measure requires a full vote in the Senate before it would head to the governor for his approval.

Earlier this year, Democrats in the Assembly proposed a separate measure, still awaiting a vote, that would open the medical marijuana program to women who suffer from severe menstrual cramps.