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Veterans Are Key as Surge of States OK Cannabis For PTSD

Against the backdrop of the nation’s largest Veterans Day parade, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this month he’d sign legislation making New York the latest in a fast-rising tide of states to OK cannabis for PTSD treatment, even though it’s illegal under federal law and doesn’t boast extensive, conclusive medical research.

Twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia now include PTSD in their medical marijuana programs, a tally that has more than doubled in the last two years, according to data compiled by the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. A 29th state, Alaska, doesn’t incorporate PTSD in its medical marijuana program but allows everyone over 20 to buy cannabis legally.

The increase has come amid increasingly visible advocacy from veterans’ groups.

Retired Marine staff sergeant Mark DiPasquale says the drug freed him from the 17 opioids, anti-anxiety pills and other medications that were prescribed to him for migraines, post-traumatic stress and other injuries from service that included a hard helicopter landing in Iraq in 2005.

“I just felt like a zombie, and I wanted to hurt somebody,” says DiPasquale, a co-founder of the Rochester, New York-based Veterans Cannabis Collective Foundation. It aims to educate vets about the drug he pointedly calls by the scientific name cannabis.

DiPasquale pushed to extend New York’s nearly two-year-old medical marijuana program to include post-traumatic stress. He’d qualified because of other conditions but felt the drug ease his anxiety, sleeplessness and other PTSD symptoms and spur him to focus on wellness.

“Do I still have PTSD? Absolutely,” says DiPasquale, 42. But “I’m back to my old self. I love people again.”

In a sign of how much the issue has taken hold among veterans, the 2.2-million-member American Legion began pressing the federal government this summer to let Department of Veterans Affairs doctors recommend medical marijuana where it’s legal. The Legion started advocating last year for easing federal constraints on medical cannabis research, a departure into drug policy for the nearly century-old organization.

Medical marijuana first became legal in 1996 in California for a wide range of conditions; New Mexico in 2009 became the first state specifically to include cannabis for PTSD patients. States have signed on in growing numbers particularly since 2014.

“It’s quite a sea change,” says Michael Krawitz, a disabled Air Force veteran who now runs Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, an Elliston, Virginia-based group that’s pursued the issue in many states.

Still, there remain questions and qualms — some from veterans — about advocating for medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.

The American Psychiatric Association says there’s not enough evidence now to support using cannabis for PTSD. The 82,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America group agrees.

Medical marijuana advocates note it’s been tough to get evidence when testing is complicated by marijuana’s legal status in the U.S.

A federally approved clinical trial of marijuana as a PTSD treatment for veterans is now underway in Phoenix, and results from the current phase could be ready to submit for publication in a couple of years.

Depending on the results, we may see more acceptance for cannabis as a treatment for PTSD in the near future.

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