R.I. ahead of curve in OK'ing pot for PTSD
By TOM MOONEY | The Providence Journal (TNS) | Published: August 12, 2018
PROVIDENCE — In 2015, 15 veterans in Rhode Island committed suicide, four more than the previous year, according to the latest federal data.
It was the plight of veterans that helped persuade the General Assembly, in 2016, to approve posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use, says Joanne Leppanen, director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, which for a decade now has promoted the medicinal value of pot.
"One of the things that really motivated everyone to get PTSD as a qualifier were the veterans," she says. But it took awhile.
For three or four years, Leppanen says, the coalition asked veterans to testify before legislative committees at the State House, to tell how the drug eased their trauma-induced anxiety and nightmares. But there was so much skepticism, Leppanen said, "we couldn't get them [the veterans] to come up anymore."
"We had one vet who, after talking, was followed by a psychiatrist from the medical society who was so disrespectful, saying, 'We don't have any studies that show this works.' He was denying these guys' experiences to their faces."
According to an eight-month investigation by The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, veterans have been killing themselves at twice the rate of civilians since the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.
In response, some veterans groups around the country are pushing more states to do what Rhode Island did -- allow PTSD to be a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use.
Proponents say marijuana is more effective than more traditional modes of relief. But because the federal government also still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance -- in the same category as heroin and LSD and equally addictive, with no medical value -- active duty and veterans risk breaking federal law if they use marijuana.
Veterans are also pushing to have the drug's Schedule 1 classification changed to make marijuana more available for medicinal purposes. In August 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration denied a petition to lower marijuana's classification.
This summer, Oklahoma became the 30th state to approve medical marijuana use. Rhode Island legalized medical marijuana in 2006 for patients who are diagnosed by a doctor as having a "debilitating medical condition" such as chronic pain, severe nausea or diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS. Prior to PTSD's approval as a qualifying condition in 2016, many veterans were able to enter the medical marijuana program because of other qualifying conditions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes PTSD as an intense physical and emotional response to a traumatic event.
In Rhode Island, 18,551 people are registered medical marijuana users, says the state Department of Health. The department can't say specifically how many are veterans. But of the total number of patients, 4,417 receive discounts for being a veteran, or because they are on Social Security or disability.
Winfield Danielson, spokesman for the Veterans Administration Medical Center, in Providence, says veterans who participate in the state's medical marijuana program are not denied access to other VA medical care because of the federal government's stance on pot.
VA doctors, however, can't prescribe marijuana to their patients, Danielson said. They must seek a recommendation for pot use from another doctor.
B&B Medical Marijuana Evaluation Center, with offices in Warwick and Pawtucket, has made about 4,500 doctor referrals for medical marijuana since 2012, says owner Jessica Cotton. About 15 percent of its patients (roughly 675) are veterans.
According to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD.
Leppanen, with the advocacy coalition, says marijuana has made a difference for many veterans in just the last two years since the General Assembly allowed PTSD as a qualifying condition.
"Oh yes, for so many," she says. "Right after [the law] passed, people still hadn't heard about it, and I was getting an onslaught of calls from vets, many of whom were using [marijuana] anyway but they wanted to do it legally. It was the most gratifying thing to tell them you are in luck, PTSD is a qualifying condition."
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