Why Veterans Struggling with PTSD Want Access to Medical Marijuana

A new campaign to expand medical marijuana access to veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) aims to spread awareness about the drug's efficacy, while urging states with medical cannabis programs to include PTSD in their lists of conditions for which medical marijuana may be prescribed. The Freedom to Choose Campaign -- launched by veterans, the Drug Policy Alliance, and elected officials -- targets lawmakers, physicians, and employers to recognize marijuana as a safe, efficient alternative to other PTSD medications that may not work as well or cause troubling side effects. While they urge lawmakers to adopt legislation that protects veterans' access to medical marijuana, the campaign targets Veteran Affairs (and other) doctors to recognize the benefits of medical marijuana for PTSD, and demands employers not discriminate against employers who are medical marijuana patients with PTSD. 

Advocates for the campaign include New Mexico lawmakers Congressperson Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and State Representative Antonio Maestas (D), who applaud their state for keeping PTSD a condition listed for medical marijuana use, despite a campaign to have it removed from the program, and urge other states to follow their lead. But even in New Mexico, PTSD patients using medical marijuana legally may face discrimination. 

Iraq War veteran Augustine Stanley, an advocate for the Freedom to Choose campaign, was fired by the Bernalillo Metropolitan Detention Center for being a legal medical marijuana patient in New Mexico, one of few states that recognize PTSD as a condition for which medical pot may be prescribed.  But he is determined to remain a patient, regardless of employer discrimination.  "Being a part of the medical marijuana program has given me all the joys of life back," Stanley said on a conference call for the press.

A patient since 2012, he said that after using marijuana to treat  PTSD, "I could wake up in the morning and do the things I used to enjoy, prior to being put on all those medications that leave me like a zombie." Prescription pills, he said, drove him into a "deeper depression."

Wife Anetra Stanley said, “When we came back from the war, I did see a difference in him," her high school sweetheart, "And when it got bad, it was awful."

But when he started the program, "I saw the man that I knew forever, and I don't want him to ever go back. I want him to stay on this, and even though it has cost him his job, I would rather search for work and search for money than for him to go back to the way he was. I just really believe in this program."

"It's sad that employers don't recognize the quality of life this medication gives back to the veterans," Stanley added, "We fight for other people to have quality of life, and we should be afforded that opportunity when we get back."

Michael Kravitz, a disabled US Air Force Sergeant who served during the Cold War, has been an advocate for veterans' rights for years. Kravitz lamented what he called "treatment by geography," whereby a veteran in San Francisco, where medical marijuana is legal, may be treated better than one in Iowa, where no medical marijuana program exists. Pointing to decades of research into PTSD and marijuana, Kravitz said "the mechanisms of action" by which medical marijuana works to treat PTSD are more understood than other prescription medications.  He said the federal government needs to reschedule marijuana so that its medical use is recognized.

Dr. Florian Birkmayer of the Birkmayer Institute pointed to the terrible side effects, like suicidality and withdrawal, of PTSD medication which he said "are not that great," and lead to the piling on of medications.  Certifying patients for medical marijuana, "The benefits I see are profound," he said, including increased functioning in work or school. He adds that "many veterans and other clients of PTSD self-medicate with alcohol and other hard drugs." Noting the "myth" that cannabis is a a gateway drug, Birkmayer said he has seen "hundreds of clients that because of safe, legal access to legal cannabis are able to stop using alcohol and other hard drugs to treat PTSD."

"It's [because of] my commitment to the veterans that I want to help that I am going to continue certifying people for medical cannabis," he said.


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