Marijuana: Vets group supporting Amendment 64 after health department's PTSD non-ruling

Way back in May, Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente made a second request to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the allowable conditions for a medical marijuana card in Colorado.

Vicente got his answer in the form of a no-answer.

According to Vicente, the CDPHE has not responded to his request, essentially killing it by not giving it the time of day.

"There is significant evidence demonstrating the benefits of marijuana for individuals with PTSD, and in 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs formally announced it would allow patients treated at its hospitals and clinics to use medical marijuana in states where it is legal," the group wrote in a press release yesterday. "The petition to add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana was submitted on behalf of Iraq War veteran Joe Hatcher on May 29, 2012. In order to approve the petition, the CDPHE must schedule a public hearing in front of the Board of Health within 120 days. The petition has effectively been denied because 120 days have elapsed since the filing and a hearing was not scheduled."

This is the second time the CDPHE has denied PTSD as a qualifying condition. The first was back in September 2010.

CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley told Westword yesterday morning that the window for the CDPHE to respond to the petition has not yet closed. But Salley also said that "department is not considering any new petitions to add a medical condition to the registry," pretty much confirming that PTSD won't be considered by the state health department. Salley added that a response to the petitions would be made "within the time allowed." He did not make clear what day that would be.

That doesn't work for a group of vets, who now say their only option for safe access to cannabis is the passage of Amendment 64. Vietnam vet Bob Wiley is heading the Veterans for 64 campaign, which announced its formation yesterday at a press conference in Colorado Springs.

"The state's failure to act is an effective denial of this compassionate petition," Wiley said in a statement. "Our only option is to support Amendment 64, which will ensure that Coloradans 21 and older who suffer from PTSD will no longer be subject to arrest and prosecution for using marijuana to alleviate their suffering."

That includes vets like Denver's Sean Azzariti. A soft-spoken guy who usually wears a big smile, Azzariti says he suffers from debilitating anxiety that stems from two tours in Iraq with the Marines.

His assignment during both tours was base security at an airfield in Iraq -- checking non-military personnel coming and going from the base, including food vendors and janitorial crews contracted out to third-country nationals. A lot of the time, tensions were high simply due to the heightened security, and as Azzariti points out, nobody likes being hassled. Nevertheless, there was always a very real threat of danger.

"You don't know what you are really dealing with. Any time you go to search someone's car, it could blow up. We had a big concrete wall about ten feet high by twenty feet wide that they would have to go park behind, and that is where we would search it. [The danger] is always looming over you, literally."

Continue to read more of our interview with veteran Sean Azzariti about PTSD and marijuana.   Azzariti's base was constantly mortared, and to top it off, he says he was sleeping just a few hundred yards from the runway -- the landing zone for mortar fire directed at aircraft.

Sean Azzariti.
Sean Azzariti.

"One time when I was getting ready to go to the gym with my buddy, we were standing [a few feet from] each other when one had to have landed not fifty feet from us. Everything that was in the can we were in came flying off the shelves. Him and me looked at each other like we were the last people we were going to see alive. It was intense."

He admits that he was fortunate in that he didn't have to "be kicking in doors." Nonetheless, he now suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks -- something he didn't quite realize until well after he was discharged.

"Looking back -- and a lot of people say they have this experience -- they out-process you to see if anything physically is wrong with you. But it's a quick process. They push you out. They want you to get you out before you realize something is wrong," he says.

According to Azzariti, he found himself dwelling on stressful issues in his life and having "dark thoughts" that began to severely impede his work as a programmer with an online university, to the point that he had to take a medical leave of absence for six months. In treatment, he was he was given an "an absolutely ridiculous amount of prescription pills" that included 16 milligrams of Xanax, four milligrams of Clonazepan and a sedative to help him sleep.

"It blows my mind. That is insane. You would think with how many I get, I definitely would be addicted -- but thankfully, I don't like them," Azzariti said. "It's scary to think that. Because I know a lot of vets who are addicted to pills and who are literally drinking themselves to death."

In the end, Azzariti found relief for his racing thoughts, sleep issues and anxiety through cannabis, and he eventually went through the process to become legal through Colorado's medical marijuana system. He says he was surprised when he went to the doctor for the first time a few years ago and was told that PTSD was not an acceptable condition. So instead, Azzariti took a different approach and was granted his card for debilitating nausea that accompanies his stress and anxiety.

He says that if the CDPHE were to allow for medical marijuana cards to be issued for PTSD, or if Amendment 64 were to pass, it would change the way his fellow veterans feel about personal cannabis use. He makes the point that a lot of people in the military are conservative and don't want to break the laws they believe they were defending.

"They look at me like I'm a hippie because I smoke marijuana and talk about it. It's still taboo for a lot of people to talk about. A lot of vets don't want to break the law; that's the kind of people they are. But they will drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol. I've seen so many of my friends addicted to pills, but marijuana is something they don't want to think about. But they should."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Amendment 64 blasted by Douglas County sheriff, Mason Tvert responds" and "Medical marijuana gardens suffering after lengthy, hot summer."

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