Justice

These Colorado Military Vets Are Suing Over Marijuana

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating mental ailment that affects people who have experienced serious traumatic events in their lives. It is typically found in people who have served in the military during wars, people who have been sexually abused, and people who have witnessed or experienced many other dreadful situations. People suffering from the disorder will often relive these terrible experiences in their minds and feel waves of fear and depression. Almost 10 percent of the population experiences PTSD at some point in their lives.

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Medical marijuana is becoming more and more popular as a treatment tool for PTSD. With an estimated 22 veterans killing themselves every day in the U.S., mostly due to PTSD, any method for fighting the illness a patient can get is important. With that in mind, nine states currently allow those who have been diagnosed with PTSD to acquire marijuana to treat their symptoms. That doesn't mean these people are just getting high to forget their problems, but they are often using marijuana to help treat the symptoms while they seek therapy and other approaches for trying to cure the disorder. CBD, the compound in marijuana that doesn't get people high like THC does, is said to be beneficial for people who have PTSD, so they might not be getting high at all.

Unfortunately for veterans and others with PTSD who want to get medical marijuana in Colorado, the illness is not on the list of reasons someone can get a medical marijuana card. The state government appointed a board of experts to look at if PTSD should be added to the list of reasons to get a medical card, and that board decided against it in July. Now, five PTSD patients from Colorado are suing the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the Colorado Board of Health to get the decision changed.

"This is not your traditional lawsuit where one side is suing the other and has a burden of proof and new evidence," Bob Hoban, the lawyer representing the patients, told ATTN:. "This is what's called an administrative appeal." Basically, the government chose a board who made this decision in the middle of July, and it was an administrative final decision, but they want to reverse it. "When they make that decision, you can appeal it if it's incorrect or erroneous or arbitrary and capricious. You can appeal it to the district court."

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Before the final decision was made, Colorado's chief medical officer recommended adding PTSD to the list of acceptable conditions because people with PTSD were lying about why they needed medical marijuana, and he didn't think that was right. Most of the Colorado Scientific Advisory Council had also recommended adding PTSD. That said, the addition was still rejected.

"We're arguing that the board has abused its discretion, because it ignored the fact there was a great deal of scientific evidence in the record that showed marijuana does in fact help PTSD patients," Hoban said. He said he didn't see any evidence at the hearing that countered the claim marijuana helps PTSD, and he thought it seemed to show it helps treat the condition.

The board argued that they needed to see a study approved by the federal government showing marijuana can treat PTSD, but Hoban said such a study would be unlikely to happen at this time. "There can be no U.S. government-sanctioned study, because the government will refuse to give the scientists marijuana to do the study," he said. Official government studies for marijuana have to use marijuana provided by the federal government, and the government is notoriously stingy with providing marijuana for research.

Hoban said he has had friends and family members who suffered from PTSD, and that's why his firm is taking the case at no cost to the plaintiffs. He knows how difficult it can be for people to live their lives when they take the prescription anti-depressants and other addictive drugs to treat their PTSD.

"The side effects are terrible--where these people become zombies," Hoban said. "They can't conduct a normal life, and at least marijuana helps them do that."

One study hopes to change marijuana access for PTSD patients

Dr. Sue Sisley is a physician working on the only study that is in line to receive research grade marijuana from the federal government to study its effects on PTSD. That study, which would meet the board's standards, won't be done for at least four years. The federal government still hasn't given her and her colleagues the marijuana it has promised them for the study, and it won't tell them when they will be receiving it. She told ATTN: that she testified before the board that was deciding if PTSD would be added to Colorado's medical marijuana list, and she apparently did not get a chance to present her most compelling evidence in favor of adding it. The board gave participants only two minutes to speak, and her two minutes were up before she presented a different study that seems to show marijuana can treat PTSD effectively.

The study was done last year by Dr. George Greer and examined 80 veterans with PTSD who were involved in the New Mexico medical marijuana program. Greer found participants experienced a 75 percent reduction in their PTSD symptoms while using medical marijuana.

"If the study is accurate, which I believe it is because it went through peer review, there is no combination of medications that could come close to a 75 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms," Sisley said. She said the typical drugs prescribed for PTSD, Paxil and Zoloft, don't get anywhere near 75 percent effectiveness.

Although recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, meaning PTSD patients could get it from recreational stores, the prices and varieties are very different between medical and recreational shops. Medical marijuana in Colorado is taxed at about 3 percent, while recreational is taxed at at least 25 percent. Also, most recreational shops in the state do not offer products people need to treat their PTSD, such as marijuana strains that are very high in CBD. To get those products, you typically have to have a medical card. Most people purchasing marijuana from recreational shops in Colorado, however, are looking for products that are higher in THC.

Hoban believes people with PTSD should be able to tell their doctor what they have so the patient can receive treatment for that condition, instead of the doctor treating them for a condition they don't really have. He believes the review board did not have the interest of patients in mind when they made their decision and that they instead based it on the official position of the federal government.

"It's a political decision, and it's disgusting that they would do this to human beings—to our military veterans," Hoban said. "Politics is getting in the way of people getting the legitimate medicine they deserve and that they need. They shouldn't have to lie about their condition to get a recommendation from a doctor."

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Veterans across the nation are fighting for their right to use marijuana to treat PTSD

A bill called the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act would prevent the federal government from going after people who use medical marijuana in states where it is legal. It has been introduced to the Senate, but it has not received enough support yet to continue. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs currently does not allow VA doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, mostly because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, so veterans in many in states end up getting marijuana off the streets. While veterans and others with PTSD commit suicide after not finding success with accepted treatments and grapple with returning after war, state governments and the federal government continue to support those treatments and ignore other options.