Group of veterans thanks NJ Gov. Christie for approving pot for PTSD

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that marijuana will remain a Schedule 1 drug.


By JAN HEFLER | The Philadelphia Inquirer (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 10, 2016

The day after Gov. Christie signed a bill allowing vets to use marijuana for post-traumatic stress syndrome, he was greeted by cheers - and some boos - as he exited his black SUV and walked to the entrance of the Trenton Statehouse.

In a video clip posted on Facebook last month, he was more stunned by the group that was clapping.

Over the last two years, the group of five to 30 protesters would occupy a spot near the door most Thursdays and deliver speeches about the virtues of treating health problems with cannabis. They would set up orange traffic cones as a nod to Bridgegate and the roadblocks they said the Republican governor had created to keep the medical marijuana program from growing. Christie had called the program a front for the legalization of recreational marijuana and was against expanding it.

But on Sept. 15, about 10 protesters held up "Thank You, Governor" signs and rushed over to shake Christie's hand. Some hugged him.

"The decisions you have to make, I know it ain't easy," Leo Bridgewater, an Iraq War veteran from Trenton said to Christie in the video.

"You just do it, baby, I asked for it," Christie replied, straight-faced and chomping on gum. Meanwhile, a separate group of demonstrators across the street chanted "Shame on you" because Christie opposes raising the minimum wage.

Christie told Bridgewater and another veteran in the group, "I hope this helps."

But some vets who were not present that day said the celebration was premature. Christie had attached a statement saying a major reason he approved the bill was due to the high suicide rate among veterans with PTSD. The governor also emphasized the vets would have to exhaust conventional treatments before they can get cannabis and announced he would direct the health commissioner to create new regulations to prevent abuse.

Don Karpowich, an Air Force special operations vet with PTSD, said he was angry when he read that. The implementation "could take another year," he said shortly after the bill was approved. "I was so happy he passed it, but then I read it and was so pissed off. He added layers to delay it."

Three years ago, Christie's administration had rejected a petition asking for PTSD to be added to the list of a dozen ailments that are approved for cannabis use. He also waited several weeks before signing the bill, which lawmakers overwhelmingly supported.

Karpowich, a Morristown resident who participated in the statehouse protests and testified in favor of the bill, said he was diagnosed with PTSD a few years ago. He said he was tormented by the memory of finding the bodies of seven "brothers" from his team and 11 other passengers in a C-130 plane that had crashed near Zaragoza, Spain, during a mission about three decades ago.

"Christie is treating us like babies, saying we might abuse cannabis. But it's OK for us to take drugs that we're prescribed and that turn us into zombies?" Karpowich said.

Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said the PTSD law was supposed to go into effect "immediately" upon signing. But for more than three weeks, questions swirled as to how long it might take for Christie's administration to draft new regulations. Some PTSD patients reported they had called their doctors and were told the doctors were looking into it, he said.

Wolski said some vets were concerned the health department would hold hearings that could drag on.

But Wolski was among those who shook Christie's hand after the bill was approved. "He could have vetoed it and thrown the whole question back. We were grateful that he did the right thing," Wolski said. The new law is a victory for the coalition, which had been pressing Christie for years to add a new ailment to the list, he said.

Of the 25 states with medical marijuana programs, 17 currently include PTSD. Pennsylvania, which approved a program that is expected to be implemented in 2018, is among them.

Wolski said that the New Jersey law is more stringent than others because it requires veterans and others with PTSD to first use conventional drugs before they can get cannabis. "Some of the antidepressants recommended for PTSD have suicide warnings attached to them," he said. "Why would they require these dangerous treatments?"

When asked about the status of the new regulations, New Jersey Health Department spokeswoman Donna Leusner said last week that doctors could immediately recommend cannabis for PTSD patients. She did not directly respond to questions about whether any new rules were created as recommended by Christie in his statement. "The department complied with the law that took effect immediately. Department rules are periodically updated to reflect changes in law," she wrote in an email.

Around the same time, Karpowich said that his doctor had finally gotten back to him and said Karpowich could start the process of applying for a card. That could take a few weeks, he said.

Karpowich would have to see a psychologist first, and then have three "cash-only" visits with his doctor to establish a "bona fide relationship" before he would be eligible.

Because the federal government still considers cannabis to be illegal, the Veterans Administration psychiatrists who diagnosed Karpowich with PTSD are not permitted to recommend cannabis. Congress recently failed to pass a long-debated measure that would have permitted VA doctors to make such recommendations in states with medical marijuana programs.

Bridgewater, who also has PTSD, said he is happy the bill was approved, despite its flaws and the controversy over the regulations. He speculated that Christie most likely approved it for political "strategic reasons." The governor in his statement said he approved the measure because veterans' service to the country warrants allowing them to have access to cannabis for PTSD.

Bridgewater said he hugged the governor when Christie stepped out of his SUV last month and asked for the pen used for the bill-signing. He got the pen and it is now in his trophy case with the military service medals. "When it comes to changing the law and people's minds, this takes years of commitment," Bridgewater said. "What we're really doing is reversing 80 years of conventional thinking about marijuana."


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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 during a press conference near the Hoboken station in New Jersey.

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