Don Karpowich said he was determined to make lawmakers understand how deeply distressed many veterans are when he testified last month in favor of a New Jersey bill that would allow them to use medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Karpowich, a disabled veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD, said that when he spoke to the members of the state Senate's health committee, he "looked into each one of their eyes" and explained how 22 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide. Marijuana reduces anxiety and sleeplessness for the veterans who suffer from the condition, said Karpowich, 57, of Morristown.
While serving as a member of a special operations Air Force team, Karpowich had discovered the bodies of seven missing comrades who had perished in a C-130 plane crash in the mountains near Zaragoza, Spain, during a mission in 1984. The searing memory, he said, led him to become an alcoholic and he suffered from insomnia and anxiety for years.
On June 16, the health committee voted 6-3 to release the bill to the floor. It is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Monday.
The Assembly has already passed an identical bill with bipartisan support.
Under the bill, a patient with PTSD symptoms would first have to try conventional medical therapy before qualifying for medical marijuana. Generally, that would involve psychotherapy or antidepressant or antianxiety medications.
Jim Miller, a cofounder of Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said in a Facebook post that the bill was only "one vote away from getting to Governor Christie's desk. All it needs is to be posted for a floor vote on the Senate floor. That decision is up to the President of the senate, Stephen Sweeney." In recent weeks Miller had urged followers to press for a vote.
A spokesperson for Sweeney said last week that the vote is on the list for Monday.
Christie's position, however, is unclear since he has said in the past he doesn't favor "expanding the medical-marijuana program."
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor "will comment when a final bill is received and we have had ample time to study it."
As a fallback, Karpowich said he was working on a petition to have the state Health Department consider including PTSD on the list of conditions that qualify for medical-marijuana use. Currently about a dozen ailments, including cancer, HIV-AIDs, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, epilepsy, and glaucoma are on the list.
In March, Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett appointed a panel to review recommendations on any conditions that should be added. Petitions will be accepted throughout August.
Two years ago, Ken Wolski, executive director of the coalition, filed a petition with the Health Department to consider adding PTSD. At that time, the department denied it, saying the panel had not been created.
Dawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for the department, said the panel plans to hold a hearing on the recommendations. No date has been set, and she said it would "depend on the availability of the panel." The eight-member panel is composed of doctors, pharmacists, and nurses.
Wolski, a former nurse, said he now plans to submit a petition asking for chronic pain to be considered. Others in the coalition will recommend adding PTSD, autism, and neuropathic pain, he said.
"Chronic pain is a qualifying condition for people with HIV-AIDS and cancer [to use marijuana]. . . . How can they justify limiting marijuana therapy for two disease states and ignore it for others?" Wolski said.
Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the national Drug Policy Alliance, also supports adding chronic pain. "Doctors prescribe medications for pain every day, and most have many more harmful side effects than medical marijuana," she said. "Doctors know the difference between minor pains and chronic serious pain, and we should leave it up to the doctors."
Scotti said the alliance would submit petitions and help sick patients fill them out. "The patients we've talked to are excited about it. They've waited a long time for the process to open up," she said.
The rules call for a petitioner to include "letters of support from physicians or other licensed health care professional knowledgeable about the condition" being recommended for inclusion. It also requires a petitioner to provide evidence "generally accepted among the medical community" that marijuana can alleviate that ailment.
The panel will then "evaluate each petition based on scientific and medical research available," said Commissioner Bennett.
Wolski said the rules and the required documentation will make it difficult to submit a petition. "One of the things I find is a stumbling block is the letters of support from doctors. . . . We haven't seen a lot of support since only about 300 out of 30,000 doctors in the state have registered with the medical-marijuana program," he said. The program currently has 380 doctors and 8,700 patients participating in the program.
The panel will make a recommendations to the health commissioner, who will have the final say.
Other states, including Pennsylvania and Delaware, include PTSD in the qualifying conditions.
Karpowich said that he will prepare the petition as best he can, but he hopes lawmakers will pass the bill, and Christie will sign it, so that he and other veterans will be able to get relief by using medical marijuana.
Over the last six years, Christie has said he does not favor expanding the medical-marijuana program and he has vetoed several medical-marijuana bills. In 2013, he reluctantly agreed to sign a bill to allow children with epilepsy to use edible marijuana. The Health Department, however, has not yet approved any edibles for sale. He also signed a bill last year that allows sick children to take it while in school.
At an April news conference, Christie said that he would "look at commonsense expansions like we did for edibles for young people and that kind of thing, . . . but I will not agree to some kind of broad-based expansion that makes it nothing more than a functionally recreational program."