By Erin Delmore
“As soldiers, we’re taught that we have the support and the love of the American people. We see the yellow ribbons and we’re told ‘thank you for your service,’ and the whole nine. That’s not supposed to stop once we got out,” said Army Veteran Specialist Leo Bridgewater, Sr.
Bridgewater served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He suffered a knee injury at an Army base back in the states. He’s one of around 6,500 card-carrying New Jerseyans permitted to use medical marijuana.
“It definitely helps me with my chronic pain in my knees, but it also helps me because I deal with PTSD,” he said.
Bridgewater considers himself lucky. Other veterans coping with post traumatic stress don’t have that option — PTSD is not a qualifying condition under the state’s medical marijuana law.
“With medicinal marijuana, it’s not ‘how high can I get?’ It’s ‘what high am I looking for’ to address whatever issue it may be,” Bridgewater said.
The plant and its extracts, also known as medical cannabis, are lawfully used by people suffering from cancer, seizures, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses. It’s used among terminally ill patients.
“There’s 100,000 people in pain, where their pain doesn’t qualify because it’s not from a legislated, approved list of indications. So there’s many things that have to be added, and we have a pecking order that we’re trying to peck them off on,” said Jim Miller, co-founder of Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.
Top of the list: PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are suffering from the condition. New Jersey’s convened a panel of eight medical professionals to study whether the drug can be used to treat it. Dr. Alex Bekker is the chair of that panel.
“Cannabis is not a new drug. It was known for 5,000 years and people use it recreationally, people use alcohol recreationally. To me, it’s not an issue whether you use it or not. The more important issue, to this panel, to me personally, is if it helps with the condition the physician would like to treat,” Dr. Bekker said.
Miller has seen what it can do.
“I was married to the late, great Cheryl Miller who had multiple sclerosis. By the time she could only move her head, we tried everything, but she never used marijuana socially, so she didn’t know how good it could be for her spasticity. I made it for her in a salad. When I found out what it could do that nothing else could, I would have done anything for her, so I did, and together we set out on a course of action that lasted the rest of her life,” Miller said.
He said an article in a medical journal gave him the idea.
“I told her that we can take care of this being quiet, and I’ll take care of you. Or we can tell the world and she said to me, ‘don’t you wish you’d known sooner?’ What she meant was she was doing pretty good when we met and she might have still been doing pretty good, but I didn’t know. So she asked me that and I said yeah and then she said ‘we shouldn’t want somebody to have done something for us that we’re not willing to do for somebody else.’ So I’m still here, because somewhere there’s another Cheryl, and we want to make sure they know, too,” he said.
Miller does a podcast from the State House steps. He and Bridgewater spoke at the panel’s first meeting.
“Not including PTSD In the program it says to me that you’d rather have me zombied out on Oxycodone and Percocet which is, when you look at it on a local level here in Trenton, is a big problem,” Miller said.
“Most people are aware, some people call opioids an epidemic in this country, so it would be very beneficial to the public to find an alternative. It seems to me it can be a reasonable alternative in some circumstances,” said Dr. Bekker.
The panel is engaged in a 60-day public comment period. At that point members will review the statements and available evidence, they’ll submit a recommendation to leadership in the Department of Health, then on to the governor’s desk.