Medical marijuana advocates in New Mexico launched a campaign Tuesday to protect veterans’ access to cannabis in the state, saying the initiative has national implications as more former troops with post-traumatic stress disorder find relief for their symptoms by using pot.
PTSD is a qualifying condition for New Mexico’s medical marijuana program, but former troops often face difficulties obtaining the drug or can be fired from jobs that prohibit its use, according to organizers of the “Freedom to Choose” campaign.
Protections for veterans are needed, advocates say, because vets suffer the top two conditions that qualify for medical marijuana in New Mexico — PTSD and chronic pain — more than other populations and often face job discrimination.
“You can have the right safeguards, you can create a list of conditions that is limited enough to have the right infrastructure in place, but not so limiting it can cause some patients not to have full access,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M. describing her state’s medical marijuana laws.
“I want to do everything I can to promote that model to in all 50 states,” she said.
New Mexico is among 18 states, along with the District of Columbia, where medical marijuana is legal.
Advocates say the drug eases pain and anxiety related to service-connected injuries and mental health disorders.
But the drug remains illegal under federal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice and is associated with cognitive impairment, respiratory illnesses and addiction, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
A 2004 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that cannabis use doubles the relative risk among teens and young adults for developing schizophrenia later in life.
“Cases of psychotic disorder could be prevented by discouraging cannabis use among vulnerable youths,” wrote lead author Louise Arsenault.
Yet some veterans with PTSD credit it as a “lifesaver.” New Mexico resident Augustine Stanley, an Iraq war veteran, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011. After prescription medications “drove him into a deeper depression,” Stanley enrolled in the New Mexico medical marijuana program in June 2012. He was subsequently fired from his job at the Metropolitan Detention Center-Bernalillo.
“It’s sad employers don’t recognize the quality of life this medication gives back to the veterans, and I think we should have quality of life just like everyone else,” Stanley said.
According to the Veterans Affairs Department, an estimated 11 percent to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have the condition.
In 2010, VA issued a policy that allows patients to use medical marijuana in states where it is legal, although VA physicians are not allowed to prescribe it.
Grisham said she’d like to see that regulation overturned.
“It pains me that our own veterans hospital still has an extraordinary wait list for palliative care and pain management and very limited access for pre-screening and management of PTSD. This is a tool those professionals need,” she said.