Medical marijuana PTSD bill's failure is "shameful," advocate says

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Yesterday, as we reported, a bill calling for post-traumatic stress disorder to be added to the conditions approved for treatment by medical marijuana came before the House committee on State, Military and Veterans Affairs. But it was rejected by a 6-5 vote.

Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, attorney and co-author of Amendment 64, has been fighting for this cause since at least 2010. He's clearly frustrated by this turn of events, as well as some of the misinformation heard during testimony. But he's not ready to give up.

"This is something Sensible Colorado has worked on for four years-plus," Vicente notes, "and it seems that time and again, the government has acted to prevent PTSD sufferers from ready access to medical marijuana. We think the vote last night was just shameful."

The roots of this issue stretch back to 2000, when Colorado approved Amendment 20, a ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana in the state. A20 includes a list of conditions approved for MMJ treatment, but also provides a way for others to be added. Here's the pertinent section of the document:

"Debilitating medical condition" means:

(I) Cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or treatment for such conditions;

(II) A chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition, or treatment for such conditions, which produces, for a specific patient, one or more of the following, and for which, in the professional opinion of the patient's physician, such condition or conditions reasonably may be alleviated by the medical use of marijuana: cachexia; severe pain; severe nausea; seizures, including those that are characteristic of epilepsy; or persistent muscle spasms, including those that are characteristic of multiple sclerosis; or

(III) Any other medical condition, or treatment for such condition, approved by the state health agency, pursuant to its rule making authority or its approval of any petition submitted by a patient or physician as provided in this section.

As you can see, post-traumatic stress disorder is not listed in the amendment. As a result, Colorado veterans who use marijuana to address PTSD symptoms risk losing their federal benefits by doing so.

Since 2010, Vicente and other advocates have attempted to alter this situation via legislation and two separate petitions to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. But the 2010 bill failed due in part to health department lobbying against it -- and the CDPHE rejected petitions that year and in 2012 without holding a hearing.

In 2014, however, Vicente and legislators such as Representative Jonathan Singer took another shot at getting the legislature to act.

As we've reported, the latest PTSD legislation, known as House Bill 14-1364, was extremely simple. The two-page document "adds post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of debilitating medical conditions for the purposes of the use of medical marijuana," it states, with a safety clause noting that "the general assembly hereby finds, determines, and declares that this act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety."

Among those who spoke against the measure at yesterday's hearing was Dr. Larry Wolk, who's served as the CDPHE's executive director and chief medical officer since last September.

"His argument against the bill was essentially that there's not enough data out there to show that PTSD is assisted by cannabis," Vicente notes, adding, "The CDPHE says they need federal studies, but the federal government won't authorize those studies. So the department has basically been in lockstep with the federal government, putting hurdles in front of any progress in this area."

Moreover, Vicente feels Wolk "had a complete misunderstanding of the timeline about how medical marijuana evolved in Colorado."

Continue for more about the failure of the medical marijuana PTSD bill, including additional photos. Wolk "testified that the CDPHE added the original conditions; he didn't understand that they're in the constitutional amendment," Vicente says. "And then he talked about the 2010 and 2012 petitions we put together and said they'd had hearings on those and both sides had been heard, when in fact we were denied hearings. They just issued a letter, saying, 'No thanks.'

"He's relatively new to the job," Vicente concedes. "But he clearly misunderstands the history."

The bill was also attacked on technical grounds.

"There was some debate among the committee members as to whether it was a lawful thing for the state to simply add a new condition to the list of debilitating conditions listed in the state constitution," Vicente allows. "The argument was that we were amending the constitution. But our argument was that it didn't touch the constitution; it was amending the statute."

Marijuana advocate Robert Chase believes this attack on the bill as written had merit and thinks another approach could have been successful. But Vicente disagrees.

"We worked with the legislative drafter as well as Representative Singer and came to the conclusion that it was 100 percent legal for the state to create this new condition folks could use medical marijuana for," he says. As such, "we feel this was, frankly, an excuse some legislators used not to do the right thing. They fell back on the question as to whether they have the power to regulate medical marijuana, which we think is a very weak excuse."

Whatever the case, Vicente goes on, "the real losers here are the brave sufferers from PTSD: the vets and others who showed up to testify and said they wanted this bill to pass. And with 22 veterans committing suicide in this country every day, there's a pressing need for alternative treatments like medical marijuana."

In the meantime, Vicente says, "we're still hearing from dozens of veterans and PTSD sufferers every year who want this to be recognized as legitimate medicine. We need to figure out if we'll work again with honorable representatives like Jonathan Singer or petition the state health department. But we feel this is an important issue to keep fighting for."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa April 28: "Marijuana: Bill to add medical pot to approved PTSD treatments faces important test."

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