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January 19, 2012

VT Bill Aims to Add PTSD to List of Conditions Eligible for Medical Marijuana

F-growinglegit-weed-1For many marijuana users, forgetfulness and drowsiness are simply the drug's unintended side effects. But for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially combat veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ability to smoke pot, relax and briefly escape the horrors of the past is just the right prescription for what ails them.

At least, that's the thinking of House Rep. Jim Masland (D-Thetford), who introduced legislation this week to allow people who suffer from PTSD to use medical marijuana to alleviate their symptoms. The bill, H.568, would add PTSD to the current list of "debilitating medical conditions"  that qualify patients for participation in Vermont's medical marijuana registry.

In 2004, the Vermont legislature created the medical marijuana registry for patients who suffer from end-stage cancer, HIV/AIDS or multiple sclerosis. In 2007, the law was expanded to include any medical condition that results in persistent or severe pain, chronic wasting, nausea or seizures. Currently, 411 Vermonters are on the registry.

Masland says he introduced H.568, in part, at the request of a constituent, a combat veteran, who claims that using cannabis to relieve his symptoms is "pretty nearly the only thing that helps."

"I work with veterans from time to time so I understand their plight," Masland adds. "if there's something that we can do to help them, then I think that would be a fine thing."

Masland also serves on the Mental Health Council at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, an advisory forum that includes members from the various branches of the U.S. armed forces. Masland notified fellow members of the council beforehand that he was planning to introduce this bill and solicited their input. Though the council itself has not officially endorsed the legislation, Masland reports that several members individually expressed support for it.

The use of medical marijuana to treat PTSD has been a controversial subject in recent years. Currently, the VA does not recognize cannabis as a legitimate form of therapy or treatment for any condition, nor does it allow VA-employed health care practititioners to prescribe or recommend its use in states such as Vermont, where medical marijuana is legal. Many veterans groups, including Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access, continue to push for a change in those policies.

Masland's bill would be welcome news to Paul Shannon, a former Army MP injured in the line of duty. On May 13, 1975, Shannon was on an “infiltration-intercept mission” into the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, when he was shot twice in the chest and once in the right arm. (For more on Shannon's story, click here.)

In the decades since his injury, Shannon's pain has never ceased. In fact, it's only gotten worse, despite ever-increasing doses of opiates, which Shannon gets for free and in massive quantities from the VA. He's even gone through rehab several times to address his opiate addiction.

Several doctors have told Shannon that medicinal cannabis could help him wean himself off the opiates, cope more effectively with his chronic pain, and reduce the insomnia, flashbacks, cold sweats and mood swings associated with PTSD. But Shannon’s doctor, who works at the VA in White River Junction, is prohibited by federal law from recommending it. 

Nationally, the medical community remains divided on cannabis' medicinal properties. Several years ago, the American Medical Association called on the feds to allow for controlled studies of patients to see who might benefit from it. Nevertheless, the Obama administration remains chilly, if not openly hostile, to expanding the availability of medical pot.

Vermont would not be breaking new ground by recognizing PTSD as a condition legitimately treatable with cannabis. Currently, doctors are allowed to prescribe it for PTSD in New Mexico; one-quarter of the state's more than 1600 medical marijuana patients currently use it to relieve PTSD symptoms, according to this May 2010 NPR story. About a fifth of all combat veterans returning from Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD and/or major depression. In fact, a recent survey of Vermont's 411 medical marijuana patients found that at least four are already using cannabis to treat PTSD symptoms.

For his part, Masland admits he's not sure how far the bill will go this year. Still, he says, "It's a good discussion to have."

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