If a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have their way, doctors in states that have legalized medical marijuana will soon be able to recommend the plant to military veterans who suffer from serious injuries and a host of chronic conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Veterans Equal Access Act — reintroduced in the House of Representatives on Tuesday — would give doctors in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leeway in recommending the use of medical marijuana to military veterans.
The law as it currently stands prohibits VA doctors from advising patients to use cannabis for medical purposes. While more than 20 states allow the medical use of marijuana, only 10 states and Guam authorize doctors to prescribe it as treatment for PTSD.
“Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury can be more damaging and harmful than injuries that are visible from the outside,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Associated Press. Other co-sponsors include Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Tom Reed (R-NY).
“And they can have a devastating effect on a veteran’s family. We should be allowing these wounded veterans access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana — not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows. It’s shameful,” Blumenauer said.
If left untreated, PTSD can lead to substance abuse, anger management issues, and severe depression. In a 2014 national survey of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, more than 60 percent of members of the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy said they have been diagnosed with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. More than 30 percent of respondents also said that they have thought about taking their own life since joining the military.
While mental health practitioners have hailed traditional medication as an effective means of providing relief to PTSD patients, many brands have been found to induce dependence, trigger diabetic symptoms, and intensify psychotic thoughts. Additionally, those who support alternative treatment options for PTSD have increasingly described the cocktail of pills given to patients as a panacea for the prevalent mental health issue, especially when not implemented in tandem with counseling.
This school of thought didn’t develop by happenstance. In 2007, a panel of scientists commissioned by the federal government concluded that many Food and Drug Administration-approved PTSD medications — including Paxil and Zoloft — didn’t treat the underlying causes of the mental disorder, primarily patients’ exposure to traumatic events. In its report, the panel determined that exposure therapy — a technique that calls on patients to revisit traumatic events in their mind to help it lose its potency — proved more effective in helping military veterans deal with their mental anguish.
“If a treatment that is not shown to be efficacious is nevertheless delivered to veterans, and if the treatment is relatively inert, even if it does not harm the veterans, it may demoralize the veteran,” Richard McNally, a Harvard University psychologist and PTSD expert, told the Washington Post in 2007. “Providing treatments that do not have a good basis in evidence can result in people not improving, therefore getting demoralized and therefore not seeking treatment that can actually help them.”
Although some anecdotal evidence suggests medical marijuana could mitigate symptoms of PTSD — including anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, nausea, and muscle tension — little, if any, rigorous research has been conducted to determine the role the plant could play in helping those afflicted by the disorder.
Federal restrictions on marijuana research, validated by the plant’s designation as a Schedule I drug, have stunted researchers’ efforts to legally study its effects on the human mind. Even with studies in other countries affirming marijuana’s medical benefits, scientists contend that side effects of prolonged cannabis use — including short-term memory loss, impaired motor skills — further complicate the issue.
However, a solution may be on the horizon. In March 2014, the federal government authorized the study of medical marijuana as a treatment option for those suffering from PTSD. Months after, a New Mexico study found that patients reported a 75 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms after using marijuana. In September of that year, Colorado and Minnesota started the process of setting up research programs that test cannabis’ efficacy. These series of events have renewed hope among medical marijuana proponents that lawmakers will recognize its healing power, especially when it comes to military veterans.
“The men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have made tremendous sacrifices for our country,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for Marijuana Policy Project, told the Associated Press. “They deserve every option available to treat their wounds, both visible and hidden.”