Marijuana for PTSD
Heather Marie Brown has been waiting for years for Aug. 27, 2017, to arrive. That’s the day when she will finally be able to treat her PTSD with the drug of her choice without breaking the law.
On Aug. 27, House Bill 160, which adds PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions for therapeutic cannabis, goes into effect. Finally, Brown, a Center Barnstead resident, will be able to legally choose marijuana instead of the prescription drug treatments that she said reduced her to a shadow of herself. “It’s been really hard to receive any type of treatment other than heavy medication throughout the years that really hasn’t done anything to help me,” she said. “In fact, it took away a quality of life from me that I really needed. It affected how I was as a mother, it affected how I was as a human being.”
In addition to HB 160, the New Hampshire Legislature passed HB 157, which adds chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions for therapeutic cannabis and goes into effect Aug. 15. The legislation opens up the potential for medical marijuana as a means of treatment to thousands more patients.
Nationwide, PTSD affects 9.7 percent of females and 3.6 percent of males, which equates to close to 67,000 residents of New Hampshire, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The number of people suffering with chronic pain could be even greater, leading to an exponential growth in medical marijuana in the state. By comparison, 2,089 patients qualified for a cannabis card in New Hampshire in 2016, according to state data.
Under New Hampshire’s previous medical marijuana rules, those with PTSD and patients suffering from severe pain were unable to access cannabis treatments and get medical marijuana cards. This restriction was a prerequisite for the bill passing in 2013 for then-Gov. Maggie Hassan. Brown testified before the state Legislature, advocating for the change. “The biggest battle we faced was convincing some of the individuals up there that PTSD is a disease and it is a debilitating condition that no one should have to live with,” said Brown, whose condition was induced by childhood trauma. The bill passed through the Legislature and was eventually signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Dr. Stuart Glassman, a Concord physiatrist who treats chronic pain, said doctors will assess whether to give patients access to therapeutic cannabis on a case-by-case basis. “If the physician wants to treat chronic pain, we’ll look at cannabis if other things don’t work,” he said. Glassman said doctors must proceed carefully when deciding whether to recommend cannabis-based treatments, especially when dealing with PTSD.
Cannabis-based treatments, while effective in the short term, can sometimes lead to “addiction and worsening psychiatric outcomes,” Glassman said. “Things will have to be followed closely,” he said. “Especially in the PTSD realm.” Jeremy Sparks of Effingham will be among those who will gain access to medical marijuana due to his PTSD. Sparks, whose PTSD is a result of two tours in Iraq from 2006-11, said the addition of his condition to the list of qualifying ailments will help him and many fellow veterans who deal with similar issues.
When he came back from deployment in 2008, Sparks, a former Army officer, said he noticed some unwelcome changes in his mood. Sparks said he was becoming increasingly irritable and had trouble sleeping two classic signs of PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran affairs. To deal with these issues, Sparks sought out various forms of treatment some healthier than others. “There was a period of time where I was drinking to blackout,” he said. “I sought help for my mental health in the military and that just started a whole gambit.” Sparks said after he left the Army in 2011, he became a “guinea pig” for new treatments.
While using these treatments at his home in Florida in 2013, Sparks says he came close to dying due to “a combination of pills being in my system my pain and psych pills, and heat.” After giving up prescription drugs and alcohol to deal with the PTSD following his near-death experience, Sparks turned to cannabis. Because of the previous restrictions, Sparks was forced to get his medical marijuana ID card from California allowed under California Proposition 215 in order to access cannabis treatments.
Both Brown and Sparks said the ability to sleep is one of the main benefits of cannabis-based treatments. “It can get me to normalcy, or as close to normalcy as I’m going to get,” Brown said. “I’ll be able to sleep at night, my nightmares won’t plague me anymore.” This improvement in quality of life is especially critical for veterans, Sparks said.
Due to VA policy barring marijuana-based treatments because of its ban at the federal level, veterans must go to private physicians for a diagnosis. Sparks said these sessions, which aren’t covered by many veterans’ insurance are costly upwards of $200 per session and time consuming. By expanding medical marijuana coverage to PTSD patients, Sparks said many veterans will be able to better cope with their trauma and dial back their dependence on prescription-based treatments. “You have, on average, 22 veterans a day that are committing suicide,” he said. “If smoking a joint can help them through their day, then let them have it.”