Opinion

New York vets suffering from PTSD deserve access to medical marijuana

By Roxana Gonzalez / Shutterstock

Vermont recently became the latest New York neighbor to include post-traumatic stress disorder in its medical marijuana program, leaving the Empire State behind in providing access to the many military veterans and other patients who suffer from PTSD. New York should follow the lead of its neighbors and make PTSD a qualifying condition without delay.

PTSD is a serious condition estimated to occur in up to 18 percent of troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat frequency and intensity is the strongest predictor of the condition. Although PTSD is not associated with a physical injury, the damage caused by the trauma is real and is now better understood because of research into the human body’s own endocannabinoid system – a regulatory system similar to that of the nervous or respiratory systems.

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There are only two drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for PTSD, and each carries a black box suicide warning and fails to provide relief for many patients. Other medications used “off label” to treat PTSD, such as benzodiazepines, commonly carry risks that far outweigh their potential benefit, according to the Army surgeon general.

Medical cannabis, however, can provide relief without the risky side effects of powerful prescription drugs. Medical cannabis can lead to nightmare cessation – providing more restful sleep – as well as reduction in hypervigilance and aggression. And while poorly treated PTSD is also one of the contributing factors to increasing suicide rates among veterans, medical cannabis is associated with reductions in both suicide and opiate overdose rates when used as an adjunct treatment.

This is why it is crucial to provide veterans, most of whom have already survived numerous treatments, with the option of medical marijuana. And it is why roughly two dozen of the 29 states with medical cannabis programs include PTSD among qualifying conditions.

As executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, I have been privileged to meet military veterans from across the country who report that medical marijuana has greatly improved their well-being. I also understand the importance of providing veterans with cannabis as an adjunct to the addictive, high-powered pills they often receive from the Veterans Administration. After suffering a severe accident while in the Air Force, which resulted in a broken hip, arm and leg as well as my spleen being removed, I cycled through dozens of drugs and therapy sessions to relieve my chronic pain. Only with cannabis as an adjunctive medication have I been able to put many of those pills aside.

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Veterans in New York suffering from PTSD deserve the same options that I and many others have for managing their conditions. It is also important to remember that while PTSD is not necessarily the result of a physical trauma, it often is accompanied by severe pain, which can be relieved with medical cannabis treatment.

Of course, this is not just a veterans’ issue. More than 8 million Americans suffer from PTSD brought on by traumatic events, including first responders and victims of a physical assault or those who survive natural disasters. In fact, studies show that at least 10 percent of all women will suffer from PTSD and the effect of successive trauma seems to be cumulative.

It is time to provide those in New York suffering from this condition with new treatment options that have the potential to help them lead better lives and have more quality time with their loved ones.

While state health officials have made adjustments to the program in the past without legislative action, the Senate and Assembly have already recognized the importance of adding PTSD to the program and passed legislation that allows just that. I urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign this into law and state leaders to implement the changes as soon as possible so that suffering veterans can access this important treatment.

I hope New York will follow Vermont and nearly two dozen other states and allow PTSD to be a qualifying condition for medical marijuana access.

Michael Krawitz is the executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.

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