DAVENPORT, IA — “I was trying to be brave,” Shelly Van Winkle told ThinkProgress minutes after a tense exchange with Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina over medical marijuana.
Van Winkle, a Gulf War veteran, is also the “first and only certified cannabis nurse” in Iowa. At a voter forum at St. Ambrose University on Friday morning, she asked Fiorina what she would do to make it easier for patients — like veterans with PTSD, and children with cancer — to access medicinal marijuana.
“You’re not going to like my answer,” Fiorina responded before hearkening back to her breast cancer diagnosis in 2009. At the time, she recounted, her doctor asked “if I was interested in medicinal marijuana.”
“I said ‘No,’ and his response was ‘Good,’ because its a chemically complex compound that we do not understand — we do not understand how it reacts with chemotherapy and all of the other statements,” she said. “It is true today …. [that before you get chemotherapy] you cannot have any marijuana in your system for at least 30 days …”
Van Winkle interrupted. “That’s no longer true, “ she said.
Fiorina paused. “So I will also tell you something else. We lost a daughter to addiction,” Fiorina said, before recounting the death of her daughter due to drug and alcohol abuse.
According to the Annenburg Public Policy Center, it is no longer true that doctors don’t know how marijuana reacts with other drugs. “Prescribing information for approved versions of medical marijuana does contain drug interaction information, and studies have turned up few problems in terms of interactions with cancer therapies, as well as other types of medication,” the organization’s FactCheck.org website reads.
Van Winkle, who is a Registered Nurse with the American Cannabis Nurses Association, said she was disappointed in Fiorina’s answer — one, because she was not talking about recreational drug use, and two, because she felt that Fiorina had outdated views on the science and culture of medicinal marijuana.
“Her answer fell back to 20 years ago, when you could go to Venice Beach to smoke a joint,” she said. “If she wants to be a viable candidate, she has to get with current research.”
The issue was particularly personal to Van Winkle, a veteran and nurse who treats patients with PTSD. “Cannabis helps these people,” she said, recounting the high suicide rate among recent veterans. A recent study showed that veterans coming home from war now have a 50 percent higher suicide rate than non-military civilians.
Some doctors do advocate medical marijuana as an alternative PTSD treatment to traditional “heavy-duty” antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil, and at least two states currently allow VA Hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana for PTSD. Other countries, like Israel, have much more lax laws on its usage.
“The rest of the world has moved on,” Van Winkle said. “In the U.S., we let people die.”
Van Winkle said she wanted to make medical marijuana an issue in the federal election. She noted that, while 23 states have passed laws allowing medicinal marijuana, federal law still treats them as “criminals.”
“I’m asking [Fiorina] to step up and make this an election issue,” she said. “ She fell back to rhetoric, but when it comes to medicine, it shouldn’t be about politics. It should be about science.”