WASHINGTON — For some time, medical marijuana has been a back-and-forth controversy among experts, veterans and the public. So the Senate’s passage last month of legislation allowing Veterans Health Administration doctors to authorize medical marijuana use for patients signaled a victory for supporters.
“We support medical marijuana,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “There have been a number of studies showing the positive impact of medical marijuana on post-traumatic stress disorder veterans.”
On the eve of Veterans Day, the Senate approved the Veterans Affairs spending bill, which included language allowing VA doctors to give their patients recommendations to use medical marijuana where it is legal in the United States.
“We believe that at the federal level … the federal government should end prohibition on medical marijuana,” Collins said.
However, the House did not act on the Senate language and the budget deal just struck between House and Senate negotiators does not include a provision allowing VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana.
“…It is…disappointing that members of Congress continue to unnecessarily insert themselves into a doctor-patient relationship with our country’s veterans,” NORML, a group that advocates changing marijuana laws, said in a statement.
“No ground has been lost, but Congress should know we’ll be back next year to gain more,” NORML said, referring to the VA provision and a couple of other marijuana-related measures that failed to make the funding bill.
For many veterans living with PTSD, legislation allowing them to get access to medical marijuana seems long overdue.
U.S. Navy veteran T.J. Thompson, of Chesapeake, Va., expressed his feelings about his struggles to access medical marijuana. “It sucked,” he said.
“They spent so much time breaking us down (in the military),” Thompson said. “Yet, they kind of toss us into the curb once we’re out.”
Thompson, who suffers from PTSD, tried using the prescription drugs the Department of Veterans Affairs prescribed but found them to be addicting.
“From the time I was 21 years old to 2011… I tried to participate in (the VA’s) ways that they told me were the right ways of healing, and I learned that it was complete and utter B.S.,” he said. “They’re trying to get us addicted to lies and not be able to fight for our own rights.”
Thompson has worked with Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, Americans for Safe Access, Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Policy Project to get lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana on a national level.
Medical Marijuana in America
While 23 states and the nation’s capital have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana for medical purposes, the plant remains illegal under the federal law.
According to VA studies, there is no evidence that shows that marijuana is an effective treatment for veterans with PTSD. Those that use marijuana for their PTSD have a hard time stopping, according to the agency.
The VA also reported that marijuana use is associated with a variety of medical side effects, such as chronic bronchitis, short-term memory impairment, poor motor coordination and the inability to properly drive. It also may cause psychiatric problems like psychosis and impairment in cognitive ability.
However, not everyone agrees.
In a CBS News Poll, 53 percent of adults nationwide think that the use of marijuana should be legal.
“As a physician myself, I find that particularly when working with patients who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it’s important to have an open discussion about how their treatment is going,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, resident physician at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Since VA doctors aren’t allowed to have open discussions about medical marijuana, Burnett said he has found two things that may result: “One, veterans may not be fully disclosing all the things they are using to help their PTSD and then two, they can’t necessarily ask questions.”
As a resident in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area in southeast Virginia, Thompson had to find treatment elsewhere because his state prohibits him from talking to VA doctors about medical marijuana.
It has been an ongoing problem for those veterans that rely on VA doctors for their medical care.
“Looking at the perspective from the veterans’ view, they already experience a lot of headwinds coming in, returning home from combat, and I think (the inability to discuss medical marijuana) is another one of those headwinds they have to face,” Burnett said.
Some Progress in Congress
Medical marijuana advocates have been trying to change federal laws.
“We’re fighting tooth and nail,” Thompson said, referring to his fellow veterans. “We’re trying to fight this monopoly from the harms of government and we are making headway — just not headway enough.”
Yet, it seems that Congress is softening its historic opposition to easing marijuana laws. Supporters took heart in last month’s Senate vote.
“The goal is to have access to medical marijuana if (veterans) need it to deal with their illnesses,” Collins said.
While the final budget deal did not include a specific provision for veterans, the bill does bar federal law enforcement agencies from trying to stop states from implementing medical marijuana laws. Lawmakers enacted a similar provision last year.
The budget deal also prohibits federal agencies from interfering with states that are supporting research programs on industrial hemp.
Medical Marijuana versus Prescription Drugs
“The majority of people that we meet with and talk to… talk about the positives of medical marijuana and talk about the ways in which it has changed their life for the better,” Collins said.
While he was in the Navy from 1998 to 2004, Thompson suffered from mental health issues.
Those issues had Thompson at his breaking point. Thompson said, “let me try these pills because I’m literally at my wits’ end.”
He was put on anti-seizure drugs and antidepressants, but he said they only made him worse.
Prescriptions drugs such as Zoloft and Paxil have their own host of side effects, which can increase feelings of suicidal thought, which you don’t find using medical marijuana, Burnett said.
Thompson recalls the first time he tried to kill himself. He was on a Navy ship when he popped a whole bottle of his seizure pills and tried to slit his wrist with a modeling knife.
The second suicide attempt involved an overdose of Ativan (a prescription drug for anxiety) while consuming alcohol.
The struggle pushed him toward medical marijuana.
“I was already in a funk, but the pills stuck me in a funk,” Thompson said. “Medical marijuana has gotten me off those pills.”
According to Collins, veterans think painkillers are addictive and have bad side effects, which is why they switch over to medical marijuana.
Thompson said that the painkillers had a chemical feeling to them and made him feel like a robot.
“When you compare side effects for current first-line therapies (such as prescription drugs) for PTSD along with the side effects for marijuana, it doesn’t really make sense as to why marijuana can’t be considered an option,” Burnett said.
Only 12 percent of people think that using marijuana can be harmful to a person’s health, according to the CBS News Poll.
Medical marijuana has changed his life significantly, Thompson said.
“It is the most effective treatment for me, and my therapist agrees,” he said. “My therapist would never want to see me try and go on those pills again.”
Medical Marijuana and PTSD
According to the National Institutes of Health, PTSD affects about 7.7 million Americans. Up to 30 percent of PTSD victims are military veterans, whereas about seven percent are civilians, according to the VA.
“When you introduce trauma into the brain, you go into a process of fight-or-flight and that’s how I live on a daily basis,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s PTSD has been at bay since using medical marijuana.
“I didn’t like being in crowds,” he said. “I still don’t. However, I am able to cope and address those issues in a lot more positive manner when I’m quote-end-quote ‘stoned or high.’”
According to a study done in New Mexico by the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, PTSD symptoms dropped 75 percent in patients using medical marijuana.
How often does Thompson smoke medical marijuana?
“As often as I take a breath,” he said. Thompson said he takes it every hour-and-a-half to two hours, which is how often he would of taken the Ativan if he was still on it.
In Thompson’s eyes, he is not addicted to medical marijuana.
“I use it like anyone else would use any other type of medicine,” he said. “If anything, it minimizes my use of any other medication.”
Burnett said that he finds it interesting that some people assume medical marijuana is addicting without looking more closely at the data. On the flip side, he said, some patients taking far more powerful opioid pain medications dispute their addictive properties.
Problems with Marijuana
Medical marijuana supporters still have to convince a lot of drug enforcement and police officials who argue that the benefits of cannabis are exaggerated. Marijuana is a drug – and a gateway to heavier drugs, those officials argue.
“What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal … because it’s not,” said Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a CBS News article.
Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia and Texas, called medical marijuana “a joke.” According to him, the leaf of marijuana is not safe and is not effective as a medicine.
Rosenberg’s comment hit some nerves with medical marijuana supporters. A petition calling for President Barack Obama to fire Rosenberg has over 28,000 signatures, according to Huffpost Politics.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, is a leading opponent of medical marijuana. But Harris, who is a medical doctor believes there needs to be more research on marijuana to see if it has medical value.
“We need to know one way or another (if) marijuana has the widespread medical uses people claim,” Harris said in a U.S. News article.
Harris believes that the research will show people that marijuana “actually has quite limited usefulness in the smoked raw product,” he said.
However, supporters say there is science behind the product.
“It’s just a matter of federal policy being out of step with both the science and … the public,” he said.
According to a CNN poll, about 90 percent of Americans think that patients should be allowed to use medical marijuana if their doctor recommends it.
“There is data that suggest that while 10 percent of individuals who use marijuana may develop a physical dependence, it is significantly lower than a large array of other drugs, both illegal and legal,” Burnett said.
“The point overall is that you shouldn’t be excluding therapies that have proven to work for some people,” Burnett said.
He said there has been progress but it has been an uphill battle trying to change federal regulation on medical marijuana.
But Obama, who has an influence on legalizing medical marijuana on a national level, would like to see further investigation on the topic.
“I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue,” he said back in April in an interview for CNN’s documentary “Weed 3: The Marijuana Revolution.”
For Thompson and many others living with PTSD the scientific research can help them lead better lives.
“We need the president to stand up for us and fight for our rights as veterans, because we protect him because he is our commander in chief,” Thompson said.