Medical marijuana fight: Health department lobbies against MMJ use in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder

ptsd defense dept photo by john j kruzel.jpg
Photo by John J. Kruzel, courtesy of the U.S. Defense Department
The use of the lifelike simulator shown here has been approved for PTSD treatment.
Update, 4:00 p.m.: Representative Sal Pace's amendment relating to medical marijuana and post-traumatic stress disorder has been defeated, and the Marijuana Policy Project's Steve Fox isn't happy about it. Look for the new information after the original item below:

At today's judiciary committee hearing about HB 1284, a bill that aims to regulate the medical marijuana industry, Representative Sal Pace will offer an amendment to add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of ailments that can be treated by MMJ.

Actively lobbying against his proposal? The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which has been providing legislators with a fact sheet, on view below. Among the document's arguments: "There is no evidence of efficacy of marijuana for treatment of PTSD in the medical literature. In fact, the published literature suggests that such use leads to addiction and abuse of other substances."

This stand frustrates Steve Fox, director of state campaigns for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, who not only refutes this statement but points out that New Mexico has approved medical marijuana for PTSD treatment.

"In New Mexico, there's a medical advisory board that examined PTSD as a condition for medical marijuana patients and recommended that it be added as a qualifying condition," Fox says. "The secretary of the health department there looked at the evidence and agreed that it should be available for patients. But in Colorado, there doesn't seem to be any desire to examine the evidence.

"The standards the health department has set up is almost like an FDA-approval standard, where they're not going to approve any condition unless there are rigorous studies demonstrating its usefulness," he continues. "And while that would be nice, it's well known that the federal government has stood in the way of effective trials for decades. That's why we have medical marijuana approved on the state level -- because the federal government has blocked trials."

In Fox's opinion, this policy means the Colorado health department will continue to oppose the use of medical marijuana in PTSD treatment despite information available from the state directly to the south.

"If they would simply speak to people in New Mexico, where PTSD is the most common qualifying condition for medical marijuana treatment at this point, they would know it's helpful," he argues. "It's being recommended by psychiatrists" -- as Pace's amendment would require -- "and patients are truly benefiting from it. But they seem to have a callous disregard for this evidence."

This point of view is echoed by Mason Tvert, founder of SAFER (Safe Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation) and a prominent marijuana advocate.

"It's a legitimate treatment, and it's been found to be incredibly helpful," he says. "So it's ridiculous that our state health department is proactively fighting to keep our nation's veterans from getting access to a medicine that could very well benefit them."

Tvert's heard that health department personnel have suggested that giving medical marijuana to PTSD patients is the equivalent of giving alcohol to an alcoholic -- "which is incredibly ironic, because many people who suffer from PTSD also suffer from serious alcohol problems, which worsens their state of health. Whereas using marijuana can reduce their alcohol intake and dramatically improve their quality of life.

"We're talking about veterans who've served their country, and as a result have developed serious problems related to PTSD -- and they're being denied effective treatment," he adds. "And the worst part of this is, our bureaucrats at the department of health want that denial to continue. They clearly don't have the best interests of our veterans in mind."

Update, 4:00 p.m.: At the judiciary committee hearing today, Representative Pace presented a compromise measure that would have asked the state health department to hold a hearing to determine if post-traumatic stress disorder should be added to the list of treatable conditions. The committee defeated the amendment by a 6-5 vote, with chairwoman Claire Levy of Boulder casting the deciding vote.

To put it mildly, MPP's Fox was disheartened by this outcome. Here's his take, sent via e-mail:

"The House Judiciary Committee today showed no courage by punting on an issue that is literally a matter of life and death for many people who have truly served our country courageously. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has proven over the past few days that it is absolutely hostile to expanding the list of qualifying conditions in a thoughtful manner like their counterparts in New Mexico. Directing CDPHE to hold a hearing to consider adding PTSD as a condition was likely going to be a useless gesture, but at least it would have demonstrated that the committee examined the information from New Mexico and wanted the Department to know that they cared about this issue. To reject even that amendment was both cowardly and heartless. We hope that veterans who have found relief in this medicine -- or who hoped to find relief in this medicine -- will let the members of the committee know how disappointed they are."

Rather than address the issue of PTSD and medical marijuana in an interview, the health department provided the aforementioned release. Read it in its entirety below, followed by a report and minutes from the New Mexico medical advisory committee meeting in January 2009 at which medical marijuana was approved for treating PTSD. The latter were provided by MPP's Fox:

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