Last updated: May 25, 2020
Finding themselves in a situation they may feel has all the makings of a “Catch-22”, four veterans are suing the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the Colorado Board of Health. In a state where recreational use of marijuana has already been legalized, and despite the recommendation of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Larry Wolk, doctors on the Board recently decided by a 6-2 vote against adding post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of conditions legally treatable by medical cannabis.
Because marijuana isn’t legal on the federal level, VA hospitals are unable to prescribe it, putting these Colorado vets in what they say is an untenable position: either continue to use the often addictive, side-effect-laden medications VA doctors usually prescribe for this debilitating condition, or pay the cost of recreational marijuana out of pocket.
While vets testifying before the Board insisted marijuana virtually saved their lives and improved their quality of life—something they claim the antidepressants, antipsychotics, and opioids frequently prescribed failed to do—doctors on the Board cited a lack of scientific evidence supporting the drug’s therapeutic effectiveness as a treatment for PTSD. Anecdotal evidence, they said, isn’t enough—and both the American and Colorado Psychiatric Associations agree. According to these decision-makers, more comprehensive drug studies that include marijuana—like the 18-month study currently being done by health software company Enigami Systems—are needed before the issue is re-examined.
Scientific evidence may not be the only obstacle to medical marijuana use for PTSD. Others may include the fact that—even in Colorado, and even in cases where the drug has been medically prescribed—employers have the legal right to refuse to hire or to dismiss any employee testing positive for marijuana use.
While the legal wrangle in Colorado plays out, an estimated 22 veterans across the country commit suicide each day, a disturbing figure that elevates the need for an effective treatment for PTSD to critical. The opioids often prescribed by doctors have proven far from ideal for a number of important reasons, including the facts that:
- Opioids are highly addictive and readily subject to abuse.
- The drugs are often either over- or under-prescribed, increasing the risk of abuse.
- Veterans who receive them are required to check in with their doctors every 30 days, but many have trouble getting appointments, a situation that can motivate them to compensate by buying street-level drugs, a decision that can have fatal consequences.
- Opioids are increasingly associated with a greater risk of negative outcomes, including alcohol/drug/opioid accidents and/or overdose, and drug-related injuries.
Unlike Colorado, nine other states have approved medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD. In those states, patients can tap medical insurance to pay for the drug. Health care providers can prescribe a strain without psychoactive properties. Finally, the medical community can more effectively track the drug’s effectiveness as a treatment, gathering the kind of hard evidence the Colorado Board of Health says it wants to see.
As things stand now, that Board has three weeks to file its answer to the plaintiffs’ requests for a judicial review of the Board’s July decision and a court order that would add PTSD to the list of conditions that can be legally treated with marijuana.