Bill to allow medical marijuana to treat PTSD gains broad, bipartisan support

Author: Brian Heuberger - March 31, 2017 - Updated: March 27, 2017

Vials filled with samples of marijuana are pictured Friday March 24, 2017 at the Blum medical marijuana dispensary, in Reno, Nev. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)
Vials filled with samples of marijuana. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

A bill that enables doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to PTSD patients has gained momentum in the Legislature this year, passing the Senate with broad support on a 34-1 vote and now pressing forward with similar agreement in the House.

Sponsored by state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, and state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Boulder, SB 17 would add PTSD to the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana in Colorado, permitting patients diagnosed with PTSD to treat their symptoms. Colorado would join more than 20 states — plus Washington, D.C., and two U.S. territories — which permit medical marijuana use to treat PTSD.

An increasing number of research studies have demonstrated that medical marijuana can effectively alleviate PTSD symptoms, including studies published by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists and the Canadian MedReleaf research group.

These studies indicate that medical marijuana can help PTSD patients reduce their anxiety, improve their functioning and dissociate innocent stimuli in the present from their traumatic memories of the past.

The House committee passed SB 17 with an 8-1 vote after hearing six hours of dramatic testimony from witnesses who have effectively treated their PTSD symptoms with marijuana, including some heart-wrenching stories from military war veterans and sexual assault victims. Perhaps most compelling were the stories of patients being prevented from taking their own lives.

“PTSD is a condition that can often lead to suicide,” Sen. Aguilar told the Statesman. “So the goal of the bill is to decrease the risk of suicide among veterans by hopefully giving them some measure of relief.”

Aguilar, who is a licensed M.D. and a Denver Health Board member, said that the effects of medical marijuana can effectively treat PTSD.

“I sincerely believe that this becomes another tool in the toolbox,” Sen. Aguilar told The Colorado Statesman. “I heard from a lot of veterans who felt that the pharmaceutical medications didn’t control their symptoms and had a lot of side effects, but who then used medical marijuana with a good response.”

The members of the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee generally supported adults with PTSD using medical marijuana. But for some, the concept of children with PTSD using medical marijuana was a concerning aspect of the bill, causing them to worry about adolescents using marijuana while their brains are still developing.

Their concerns were quickly eased in testimony. Supporters emphasize that the bill contains strict provisions and thorough safeguards that must be accommodated before children can receive medical marijuana prescriptions. A child with PTSD must receive the recommendation from 2 licensed doctors, consent from both parents residing in the state and approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“We have about 94,000 registered medical marijuana patients in Colorado, and approximately 300 of them are minors,” said Adam Foster, a lawyer and partner of the Hoban Law Group, who spoke to The Statesman about medical marijuana’s benefits for PTSD patients.

“It’s a very small number of individuals, a very small percentage of the patients, and typically they’re very sick kids who have tried many other therapies that have not worked and are getting relief from medical marijuana. I don’t see any reason to believe that there would be some explosion of recommendations for minors with PTSD.”

One question that often surfaces in the debate about treating PTSD patients is why not just have these patients access marijuana through the state’s legal recreational marijuana industry?

“There’s an extra 10 percent tax on recreational marijuana, so if you think marijuana is medically necessary, it seems unfair to make them pay more for it,” said Aguilar. “Also, the federal government disputes veteran entitlements if they’re violating laws. But if our state specifically allows them to use marijuana for PTSD, they’re not considered to be in violation of the law.”

SB 17 would also help steer PTSD patients away from self-medicating and instead help incentivize them to consult with doctors to develop comprehensive treatment plans.

“The bill offers an opportunity for patients to work with providers around what else they’re being given and how much they’re using,” said Aguilar. “They can see how the patient is doing beforehand, during and after, and work with them to determine if marijuana’s the right treatment.”

Brian Heuberger

Brian Heuberger

Brian Heuberger is a contributing reporter to The Colorado Statesman.