Marijuana and PTSD: Dispensary owner Wanda James reaches out to vets

Efforts to establish post-traumatic stress disorder as a condition treatable by medical marijuana fell short in the Colorado legislature last month.

That was fine by the state's health department, which circulated a fact sheet among legislators prior to vote on a PTSD amendment arguing that there's no medical evidence MMJ helps those with this condition.

Dispensary owner Wanda James couldn't disagree more. That's why she's staging an event this evening about marijuana and PTSD -- a topic she feels is particularly important given the state legislature's recent actions.

James and her husband, Scott Durrah, are owners of 8 Rivers restaurant and the dispensary Apothecary of Colorado in addition to being MMJ backers so passionate and effective that they were recently named the city's best medical marijuana advocates in Westword's recent Best of Denver issue.

Oh yeah: James and Durrah are also vets. Durrah is a former Marine, while James was a member of the ROTC at the University of Colorado from 1981 to 1986 before serving in the Navy from 1986 to 1991, ultimately rising to the rank of lieutenant. Her duties included tracking submarines "like in the Tom Clancy book The Hunt for Red October," she says.

In the years since then, James has become a prominent force in local business and politics. She served as Jared Polis's first campaign manager and ran the 2006 congressional race for Lieutenant Colonel Jay Fawcett in Colorado Springs. Moreover, she and Durrah serve on the National Finance Committee for none other than President Barack Obama.

Despite moving in such rarefied circles, James maintains a fierce identification with her fellow military men and women -- and she has no doubt that marijuana can help those suffering from PTSD.

"We know from study after study that the cannabinoids in THC have been known to help focus people -- to help them get over the trauma and the mental stimulus that comes from PTSD," she says. "We know it works."

If so, why is the health department so against recognizing its efficacy? "I think the state is just fearful of taking this next step," she believes. "I think they see this as maybe opening a door for legalization. But these are the wrong arguments when we're talking about people coming back from war. We should give them every opportunity to heal, and not put them through another hell by addicting them to opiates" that are frequently prescribed to PTSD patients.

"I've worked with some people who've spent months or years getting over their addiction to opiates," she continues. "We send kids to war, put them through the trauma of losing body parts and losing friends, and then put them through another trauma of addiction."

At this point, James and her Apothecary of Colorado staffers are trying to work around the current rules pertaining to PTSD.

"There are other conditions we can recommend medical marijuana for legally," she notes. "If you got caught with shrapnel and you're missing a leg, we can qualify you for medical marijuana for that, and it can help with your PTSD, too.

"By no means are we illegally stating fake situations," she emphasizes. "These folks have back pain and leg pain and arthritis and other chronic pain that we can work with. But the fact that we can't simply treat them for PTSD on top of those conditions is unfortunate and wrong."

It's also led to confusion among veterans. That's why she's staging tonight's event, which gets underway at 5:30 p.m. at the Apothecary of Colorado offices, 1730 Blake St., Suite 420. The main speaker at gathering, which is open to veterans and non-vets alike, is Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, an attorney and medical marijuana advocate.

"Brian will answer the questions people have had over the last four months -- and we've gotten some crazy questions," James concedes. "There are a thousand blogs out there saying what's legal and what's not legal, telling what you're allowed to do, what you're not allowed to do -- the idea that the feds are going to come to your house and arrest you in front of your kids. So we wanted to get everyone in a room where they can ask those questions and find out what's really going on -- what the state's looking at, what's being enforced today, and what's probably coming down the pipeline tomorrow."

This is especially vital for vets, she feels, "because they're a lot like law enforcement. They're law-abiding folks. They work within a system, they get the system -- and I want to be able to make this system work for them. And I think it's a travesty that this state has denied veterans something we believe will help them."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts