Let's Stop Playing Politics and Allow Veterans Access to Medical Marijuana

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June 13, 2014 - By Erin George

Too many veterans – experts estimate between 10 and 30 percent – suffer from PTSD, which can cause a range of horrible symptoms, including flashbacks, loss of emotional control and suicidal thinking.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide each day. With a national population of 20 million plus veterans, millions suffer from PTSD upon returning home.

The common treatments for PTSD are psychotherapy and medication. While psychotherapy leads to some improvement in PTSD, numerous studies have found that many veterans continue to experience substantial symptoms following treatment. Often, veterans who suffer from PTSD are prescribed intensive medication regimens that include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, benzodiazepines and anti-psychotics. Studies indicate that many of these medications are no more effective than a placebo, highly addictive and come with ‘zombie-like’ side effects.

Fortunately, an effective, alternative option for PTSD treatment exists: medical marijuana. Statistical evidence from New Mexico and international research demonstrate the treatment benefits of marijuana for PTSD. Veterans who use cannabis to treat their PTSD consistently report a reduction in stress, an overall sense of calm and no side effects.

These soldiers have made unbelievable sacrifices for this country. They deserve every possible tool to help them deal with the devastating symptoms of PTSD, including safe and legal access to medical marijuana. That is why it’s crucial that states like New York quit stalling and expand access to medical marijuana.

New York’s medical marijuana bill passed the Assembly on five occasions.  It also passed the Senate Health Committee, but has never been voted on by the full Senate. It is time that the New York Senate acts upon the desires of the 88 percent of New Yorkers who support medical marijuana. Something must be done to improve the lives of those who put themselves on the line to protect this country.

Despite the evidence, only eight states explicitly list PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis. Veterans face the loss of their V.A. benefits and jail time if caught using cannabis to treat their illness. Whether or not a veteran can seek this treatment is essentially dependent upon his or her zip code -- a veteran in one of the states that allows for the use of medical cannabis for PTSD has access, while millions of others face criminal charges. This is unacceptable.

2014 has seen medical marijuana policy successes, such as Maryland’s enactment of a comprehensive program and Arizona’s recent court ruling to include PTSD as a qualifying condition. However, there have also been disappointments: Colorado rejected cannabis as a treatment for PTSD and Minnesota excluded PTSD patients from accessing their newly minted medical marijuana program. Compounded with the recent V.A. scandal and the fact that many veterans die while awaiting treatment, it is increasingly clear that we are not putting a premium on vets’ wellbeing.

There is no reason that any veteran should suffer the horrors of PTSD when an effective, alterative treatment is available. There is no reason for elected officials to bar access to medical marijuana for any seriously ill individual, especially when 8 out of 10 Americans support it.

We need to stop playing politics and subsequently, playing with people’s lives. Give our veterans access to medical marijuana.

Erin George is a policy fellow with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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