Pubdate: Wed, 23 Mar 2016
Source: Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette (Fayetteville, AR)
Copyright: 2016 The Associated Press
Author: Ben Finley, the Associated Press


TRENTON, N. J. - A growing number of states are weighing whether to 
legalize marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. But for 
many veterans, the debate is already over.

They're increasingly using cannabis even though it remains illegal in 
most states and is unapproved by the Department of Veterans Affairs 
because major studies have yet to show it is effective against PTSD.

Although the research has been contradictory and limited, some former 
members of the military say marijuana helps them manage their 
anxiety, insomnia and nightmares.

"I went from being an anxious mess to numbing myself with the pills 
they were giving me," said Mike Whiter, a 39-year-old former Marine 
who lives in Philadelphia, where marijuana is illegal. "Cannabis 
helped me get out of the hole I was in. I started to talk to people 
and get over my social anxiety."

Others, though, have seen little benefit from the drug. And the VA 
has documented a rise in the number of PTSD-afflicted veterans who 
have been diagnosed with marijuana dependence, which some experts say 
can hamper recovery from war trauma.

Sally Schindel of Prescott, Ariz., said the VA diagnosed her son Andy 
Zorn with PTSD after he served in the Army in Iraq. The agency later 
diagnosed him with marijuana dependence as well as depression and 
bipolar disorder, she said.

Schindel said her son was using marijuana not for recreation but as 
medication, particularly to help him sleep. He killed himself at age 
31 in 2014, writing in his suicide note that "marijuana killed my 
soul & ruined my brain."

"He told me he found it much harder to quit than he thought it would 
be," Schindel said. "He'd buy it and smoke it and then flush the rest 
of it. The next day, he bought it again."

Starting with New Mexico in 2009, 10 states have listed PTSD among 
the ailments for which medical marijuana can be prescribed, according 
to the Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to end criminalization 
of the drug. A few more states give doctors broad enough discretion 
to recommend marijuana to PTSD sufferers.

Similar measures have been introduced in Georgia, Illinois, New 
Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah. In 
November, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment that would allow VA 
doctors to recommend medical marijuana to vets in states where it's 
legal. The proposal failed to pass in the House.

Federal law requires randomized, controlled trials to prove that a 
drug is effective before VA doctors can recommend it. Such studies 
are underway, including two funded by Colorado, where the state 
health board held off on legalizing marijuana for post-traumatic 
stress disorder because of the lack of major studies.

"There surely is not enough scientific evidence to say marijuana 
helps PTSD," said Marcel Bonn-Miller, a University of Pennsylvania 
professor who is leading the Colorado-backed studies. "But we'll get 
a heck of a lot closer to getting to know the answer in two to three years."

Since 2002, the percentage of PTSD-afflicted veterans who have been 
diagnosed with marijuana dependence has climbed from 13 percent to 
nearly 23 percent, according to VA data released last year. That 
translates to more than 40,000 veterans.

Officially known as "cannabis use disorder," dependence can mean 
someone is unable to sleep or becomes irritable without the drug. It 
can also mean marijuana use has diminished someone's personal 
relationships or ability to hold a job.

Dr. Karen Drexler, the VA's deputy national mental health program 
director for addictive disorders, said the potential for dependency 
is a reason vets should wait for more research.

"Marijuana may initially provide some relief," but for those with the 
disorder, "it's very hard to stop it once you start it," she said. 
"It gets into this vicious cycle."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom