Health officials are reluctant to acknowledge the value of medical marijuana, especially to veterans suffering PTSD, because of continued federal support for prohibition.
Health officials in Colorado, arguably a leader in progressive marijuana policy, rejected calls to allow medical marijuana use for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the third time this week, an outcome that has perplexed advocates.
The Colorado Board of Health voted 6 to 2 to exclude PTSD from the list of medical conditions that can be treated under the state’s medical marijuana program, arguing that there’s insufficient scientific evidence that supports its use as a treatment option. Medical marijuana proponents — particularly war veterans — decried the decision, calling cannabis a safe alternative to antidepressants and opioids.
People often develop PTSD after experiencing events that threaten their safety or make them feel helpless. While the condition has been associated with war veterans, civilians — particularlyvictims of sexual assault, childhood neglect, natural disasters, and car accidents — also count among its victims.
Those afflicted with PTSD often have flashbacks, feelings of distress, and physical reactions when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event. Left untreated, PTSD can develop into depressionand cause one to commit suicide.
“It is our brothers and sisters who are committing suicide every day. We know cannabis can help. We’re not going to go away,” John Evans, director of Veterans 4 Freedoms, told the Denver Post. “We’ve legalized it,” Evans said. “We’ll take the tax dollars from our tourists (for recreational marijuana) before we’ll help our vets.”
Attention has shifted to medical marijuana’s healing properties in recent years, prompting local and state officials to consider allowing doctors to prescribe it for common mental and physical ailments. The PTSD-medical marijuana health link has gotten a considerable amount of traction: Nine states have allowed doctors to prescribe the plant for PTSD. Lawmakers also reintroduced legislation earlier this year that would enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand its usage to war veterans.
But Colorado health officials didn’t find the national wave of change convincing enough to tweak the state’s medical marijuana policy. While some medical marijuana proponents conceded to arecent study that supported this assertion, they argued that researchers don’t have much leeway in answering the public’s most pressing questions about cannabis.
“The research on the efficacy of marijuana has been systematically impeded by the federal government for two decades,” Sue Sisley, a Colorado-based medical professional, told the Denver Post. “That (the analysis’ authors) are suddenly wanting to call out the lack of science, it’s such hypocrisy it’s sickening.”
The federal government currently designates marijuana as a Schedule I drug and a highly addictive substance with no medical value. Those who want the government’s approval to study marijuana can only do so only to determine the amount of bodily harm it causes. Once they jump that hurdle, scientists have to secure approval from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to obtain and transport large quantities of the plant from the government’s lone research repository at the University of Mississippi, a process that can add months and years to their research timeline.
Last month, the Obama Administration removed the Public Health Service (PHS) review portion of the approval process, a move that loosened restrictions on medical marijuana research. Since its 1999 inception, that PHS review process has imposed barriers to marijuana research — including requirements that plants come from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and that studies fit the criteria of what the federal government finds suitable.
Before the policy change, researchers had broken new ground in marijuana research. Some approved studies have shed some light on marijuana’s effectiveness as a healing agent and even compelled some agencies to change their tune on the subject. For instance, NIDA’s revised statement about medical marijuana in April acknowledged a London study that suggests the plant can kill tumors. Some groups, however, won’t budge. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed its opposition to the use of medical marijuana.
The lack of information about the health impacts of marijuana has impeded Coloradans’ efforts to create sensible marijuana policy years after residents voted to legalize the sale and taxation of the plant. GOP legislators in the state, for example, introduced a bill that would prohibit doctors from recommending medical marijuana to expectant mothers, even with little scientific evidence at their disposal. While a panel of state medical professionals applauded state lawmakers for approving an $8 million medical marijuana research grant last year, they acknowledged that little is known about pot use among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
“If we’re serious public policy people, we would let the scientists figure this out,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, told ThinkProgress in January. “Does one set of vegetative matter produce a certain range of carcinogens? If so, to what degree and amount? How do people consume it? This entire discussion should be based on science. But the laughable thing is that the government is against this type of research. All we have are anecdotes but we need science that meets the standards of a proper peer review.”