Thursday, the New Hampshire Senate will vote on a bill to approve the use of medical marijuana. The House already passed a version, but the Senate will vote on a bill that is different in a few key ways: it doesn’t include a “home-grow” provision or post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition.
Thomas is a 31 year-old grad student at UNH. He studies political science, he is the father of a three-year-old boy and he has PTSD. He’s asked us not to use his last name because he occasionally uses marijuana to cope with his symptoms. His therapist, a nurse practitioner, diagnosed him six years ago.
“She said, almost right away when I was seeing her, she said something about it at first and I kinda just brushed it off because I typically associated PTSD with military personnel and war veterans and like people who were in serious catastrophes. You know, like one, big traumatic event.”
His symptoms developed over time from an abusive childhood. Once he was diagnosed, Thomas began using marijuana in addition to prescribed pharmaceuticals.
“I guess it’s kinda unpredictable in the effects it’s gonna have but it helps more than it hurts.”
Eighteen states have legalized medical marijuana but only three include PTSD as a qualifying condition. Here in New England, New Hampshire is the only state without a medical marijuana law, but none of our neighbors include PTSD in their laws. But their laws share many of the same qualifying conditions: Glaucoma, cancer, AIDS, Hep C, MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease and so on.
In March, the New Hampshire House passed a bill that included PTSD. But the Senate version, amended by the Health, Education and Human Services committee, does not.
Governor Maggie Hassan has signaled to lawmakers that she would not sign a medical marijuana bill that includes a “home-grow” provision or PTSD as a qualifying condition.
“So at least this governor showed the courtesy to the legislature to explain ahead of time, ‘This is what is acceptable to me and if you want any sort of a bill, this is what you’ll have to do.’”
Republican Senator John Reagan of Deerfield is a proponent of medical marijuana and the Vice Chairman of the committee that amended the bill and unanimously recommended its passage. He says he would’ve kept PTSD in the bill if the Governor hadn’t ruled it out. But, he says, he wants a bill with the best chances of success.
The Governor’s recommendation follows the advice of a number of organizations, including the New Hampshire Medical Society. Dr. Travis Harker is its president.
“The mainstay of treatment for people with PTSD is psychotherapy and we know that that works very well. Often times if people are using marijuana, it may inhibit them from engaging meaningfully in a therapeutic relationship.”
Harker fears that patients may turn to the drug to ease short term symptoms and neglect long-term treatment. Though Harker says he’s open to being proven wrong.
“No one has really studied the effects of marijuana on treatment of PTSD. And without any evidence that it is helpful for that, we felt that it was the wrong move to make.”
But that could change. University of Arizona researcher, Dr. Sue Sisley, wants to study marijuana’s efficacy in treating PTSD.
“Well, we actually obtained FDA approval two years ago and we’ve just been waiting for the National Institute on Drug Abuse to sell us the study drug.”
And she doesn’t expect that to happen any time soon. Though, if it does, it could provide consensus to a divided medical community.
Even without a lot of authoritative research, there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence and that has pushed some states forward. Oregon’s state Senate passed a law this spring that would add PTSD to its list of qualifying conditions and the House will soon vote. Some states like New Mexico have a system where medical providers can petition an advisory board to add or subtract qualifying conditions. It added PTSD in 2009, just two years after the law passed, and the board defeated an effort to remove PTSD this year.
“We are very clearly an example of a population in which this condition is being successfully treated with medical cannabis.”
Jessica Gelay is the Policy Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance in New Mexico. It helped draft the medical marijuana bill there. She says patients with PTSD make up the largest segment of medical cannabis users in New Mexico.
“Currently there’s a little over 3,800 patients that are active in the program under PTSD and that makes up about 42% of the patient population.”
New Hampshire has about 113,000 veterans living in the state. About a quarter of whom are enrolled in the VA. And with a drawdown set to begin in Afghanistan next year, that number is expected to grow, and with that, the number of people with PTSD here in New Hampshire is also expected to grow.
The bill New Hampshire senators will vote on does include a provision for a petition system similar to New Mexico’s that would make it easier to add things, like PTSD, to the approved list without further legislation.
If senators approve it, the Governor must still sign it.