In Colorado, folks can acquire marijuana to treat their chronic illnesses, as long as those illnesses qualify as "an appropriately diagnosed, debilitating medical condition," as defined by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The approved list includes muscle spasms, chronic pain and even severe nausea, but what's more interesting is what's not included. And that you can easily see in a much longer list, covering more than a dozen conditions the department has received petitions to add, but rejected. Among them: asthma, diabetes, Hepatitis C and post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, with its second PTSD petition in as many years, Sensible Colorado, a marijuana advocacy group based in Denver, hopes to do a little list revision. "The state health department is still examining the petition," says Brian Vicente, the organization's executive director.
It's an interesting situation, because since its inception in 2000, the Colorado medical marijuana law has never OK'd anything but the original maladies. Contrast that with states like New Mexico, which put PTSD on its list of approved ailments at the behest of its veterans; California's already lenient law — which was written to allow doctors to prescribe MMJ at their discretion for what the California Department of Public Health calls "any other chronic or persistent medical symptom"; and Arizona, which has already done exactly what Sensible Colorado is trying to do.
"We haven't had any word on whether they're going to allow a public hearing [in Colorado]," Vicente tells the Indy. Such a hearing would allow Sensible Colorado, doctors, veterans, PTSD sufferers and others to make their case before a board of health officials.
However, it may already be too late for one.
"They only have 120 days, I believe, to make the decision about whether or not to have a public hearing," Vicente says, a number that's coming up fast considering the petition was filed on May 29. After that, the state has 60 more days to either accept or reject the petition outright. "We're just in a waiting period to see which way they're gonna go with it."
This time, though, Vicente and company are swinging for the fences — and with good reason. "Since the time we last filed this petition, suicides by veterans have spiked. We're now up to 18 veterans committing suicide per day," he says, citing a statistic from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
This second petition is chock-full of testimonials, anecdotes and academic studies that Sensible Colorado feels should help persuade the health board that medical cannabis is a viable treatment option for PTSD. Chances are, though, those won't do as much to convince the board as they'd hope, says Dr. Randall J. Bjork with Colorado Springs Neurological Associates.
"Studies that have to do with marijuana are usually poorly done," says Bjork, a certified neurologist since 1988. The medical community likely won't "pay any attention to them because they're usually done by researchers who wear a T-shirt with five leaves on the front.
"We reject personal testimonies and anecdotal evidence as well," he says. When not paired with a particular patient's medical history, that sort of thing "doesn't mean anything to us."
Sadly, traditional treatments of the disorder have less-than-stellar results. "The thing about treatment for PTSD now is: It doesn't work," Bjork laments. "Nothing works reliably."
For some PTSD sufferers, medical marijuana might be the most effective medicine there is. The key is understanding how a patient may respond to the drug, based on his or her medical history and symptoms. "I have patients tell me that they do feel safe and comfortable [on cannabis]. ... If a person just gets mellow and gets the munchies and goes to sleep, that would be a welcome set of events for a PTS[D] sufferer."
Bjork himself is in favor of the measure, and actually wrote a letter to then-chief medical officer Dr. Ned Calonge to have Parkinson's disease added to the list of approved conditions several years ago.
"I would welcome any options to treat a bad condition — any safe option," he says. "I think medical marijuana is safe. There haven't been any disasters from it, as far as I know. ... I don't want my patients to suffer."
By contrast, there have been disastrous results from the anti-depressants and other drugs vets are treated with today, says Sensible Colorado's Vicente.
"Our veterans are prescribed pills hand-over-fist, many of which lead to addiction and ultimately in many cases to overdose," he says. Forcing vets to use medications with a mediocre track record of success that also pose threats to their long-term health is, to him, "just irresponsible."