Thursday, January 26, 2012

An issue near to my heart, on which I'm being interviewed on Vermont Public Radio tomorrow morning.

   Thetford — Vermont patients suffering from cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis or chronic pain or nausea have been able to get medical marijuana prescriptions since 2004. But veterans and others who find that cannabis helps them better cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have to either use the drug illegally or rely on standard medications like Zoloft or Paxil to help them sleep at night and forget the trauma emblazoned in their memory.
      That may be about to change. A new House bill sponsored by a handful of Upper Valley legislators seeks to make Vermont the third state in the nation to add PTSD to the list of conditions eligible for a medical marijuana license, after New Mexico and Delaware. In New Mexico, PTSD is the top diagnosis for medical marijuana prescriptions, accounting for 25 percent of all cases, according to state reports.
      State Rep. Jim Masland (D-Thetford) hopes that New Mexico’s experience will help inform and persuade his colleagues in Vermont to move his bill forward. But so far, Masland — who introduced bill H.568 earlier this month and also voted for a bill that will implement medical marijuana dispensaries later this year — hasn’t run into anyone who needs persuading. He said the people he talks with are more concerned with the recent Vermont Yankee decision than a bill that will help trauma victims smoke pot.
      “Certainly there will be some pushback from people suspicious that every Tom, Dick and Jane is going to go to a doctor and get diagnosed with PTSD so they can smoke dope,” Masland said. “But that’s not a reason for the legislature not to consider this. It’s a reason for the legislature to be very careful in our deliberations.”
      So far, Masland has the official support of representatives Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich), Alison Clarkson (D-Woodstock) and Teo Zagar (D-Barnard) as well as several others. He also said that several members of the Mental Health Council at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, of which he is a member, have privately expressed their support, as have some of his constituents.
      “I know anecdotally there are some vets that have PTSD who have a little supply of medical marijuana and they use it because it helps them,” Masland said. The impetus for the bill came from a local vet who asked Masland if there was anything he could do to help get PTSD on the list of approved medical marijuana conditions.
     But representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which includes both the VA hospital and The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are prevented from discussing medical marijuana as a viable option for victims of PTSD, because regardless of state laws, marijuana is still illegal at a federal level. Qualified physicians from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth Medical School are also affiliated with the National Center for PTSD, officials there said, and the VA did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.
     Andy LaCasse, spokesman for the White River Junction VA, also couldn’t provide how many veterans in Vermont are currently being treated for PTSD, though it’s estimated that nationally, one in five veterans suffers from the disorder.
     Whatever the number is, if Masland’s bill passes, none of them will be able to receive a medical marijuana prescription or even advice about it through the VA, though they will not be denied other VA benefits if they legally receive medical marijuana through an outside provider, LaCasse said.
     Michael Krawitz, executive director for the group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, thinks such limitations are a mistake, and prevent veterans from learning about the full range of options available to them. Treating PTSD with cannabis is far more effective than the therapy promoted by the VA, he argues. It also has fewer side effects and treats a broader spectrum of symptoms than traditional prescription drugs.
     “I think the bottom line is those things just aren’t as effective,” Krawitz said in a telephone interview from Virginia. “Imagine just never being able to shut your eyes because every time you do, you’re right back where you were when the trauma happened. If you can just sleep for a period of time, it’s an absolute godsend. That’s something that cannabis can deliver.”
     Krawitz, a disabled Air Force veteran who does not himself suffer from PTSD, also noted the high suicide rates for returning war veterans, and the violence that can sometimes accompany flashbacks. “We’re dealing with some half-lit firecrackers out there,” he said. “If cannabis can alleviate that and make them more mellow and less prone to a violent response, that goes a long way.”
     But the problem with gauging the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD lies in the fact that though anecdotal evidence abounds, there’s no hard scientific research. A joint research venture between the University of Arizona College of Medicine and the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is hoping to soon remedy that, if they can clear the federal hurdle of legally obtaining marijuana for their study.
     If they’re successful, the first-ever clinical study of the benefits of marijuana use for victims of PTSD will test fifty veterans in a triple-blind, placebo-controlled environment.
      With Vermont’s progressive history, it seems well poised to offer those suffering from PTSD the choice to treat their symptoms with marijuana use. But given the number of other items on the legislature’s plate, Masland isn’t optimistic that his bill will rise to the top of the barrel and get passed by both houses and signed by the governor in the next year. It may have to be re-introduced in 2013. Nonetheless, Masland is glad the conversation is happening.
      His work with mentally disabled veterans at the VA has helped him better understand the issues at stake, he said. But just in case anyone was wondering: “I didn’t try it out for myself for these purposes,” he said with a laugh. “Not since many zillion years ago.”

As always, reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

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