Military veterans and New Jersey lawmakers are lobbying Gov. Christie with new vigor to approve a bipartisan bill that would allow marijuana use to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. In the past, the Christie administration had rebuffed requests to add the condition to the list of ailments that qualify for cannabis use.
But Christie did not rule out signing the bill when asked about it two weeks ago at a news conference. "I'll read it," he said, softening a bit from his oft-repeated previous statements that he would veto any expansion of the six-year-old medical marijuana program.
On Thursday, his spokesman would not say whether Christie had yet reviewed the bill. Christie "supports a science-based program," and he "won't comment until he's ready," spokesman Brian Murray said.
State lawmakers had been reluctant to advance a bill that would face a certain veto, but decided to hold hearings in June. The legislation passed overwhelmingly.
Nationally, public support for letting veterans and others use marijuana for PTSD has been mounting. There are few studies on its effectiveness, but a Phoenix doctor is preparing to recruit volunteers with PTSD to smoke two joints daily at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Scottsdale Research Institute in Phoenix in the next few months as part of a $2.2 million research project.
PTSD is a condition marked by anxiety, insomnia, and irritability stemming from the memory of a traumatic experience such as combat, sexual abuse, or another horrific event. About 7.7 million American adults have PTSD, including up to 20 percent of Iraq war veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Of the 25 states with medical marijuana programs, 17 currently include PTSD. Pennsylvania, which this year approved a program, is among them. Four other states are asking voters to decide on medical marijuana programs in November, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group.
"Cannabis is a memory eraser," said Michael Krawitz, a disabled veteran who heads Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access based in Elliston, Va. "It's been found effective in nightmare cessation, too," he said, explaining that combat veterans who have seen a humvee explode may get flashbacks when they see "a piece of garbage on the street" that resembles debris.
Opiates, he said, are often prescribed for PTSD, leaving the patients "feeling like zombies" and at risk of addiction. Cannabis allows them to function, he said.
In June, Quinnipiac University reported that 87 percent of the 1,561 voters nationwide polled in May support giving veterans marijuana for PTSD. "If you serve your country and suffer for it, you deserve every health remedy available, including medical marijuana in pill form. That is the full-throated recommendation of Americans across the demographic spectrum, including voters in military households," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the poll. The poll also found 89 percent approve of allowing adults to use marijuana when it is prescribed.
A few judges have also weighed in, ordering state health departments to include PTSD in medical marijuana programs. In June, an Illinois judge issued such an order, after an Iraq war veteran sued. An Illinois advisory board had recommended PTSD be included, but a governor's appointee overruled it, without a valid basis, the judge decided.
At the hearing before the New Jersey Senate's health committee, Army veteran Leo Bridgewater Sr., of Trenton, testified that he uses medical marijuana for problems stemming from a knee injury and said it helps him cope. He said that veterans with PTSD should also have access to marijuana especially because they have a high suicide rate. "I had three friends attempt suicide and two were successful," said Bridgewater, an Iraq war veteran.
Don Karpowich, an Air Force veteran with PTSD, testified that marijuana helped him recover from alcoholism and insomnia caused by his memory of finding the bodies of fellow parachuters in a downed plane. Last year, Karpowich joined protests held regularly at the Statehouse to try to convince lawmakers and Christie to make the medical marijuana program more inclusive.
They were unable to get traction on the PTSD bill until this summer.
Testifying against the bill was Joseph Napoli, a past president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association, which opposes medical marijuana for PTSD.
"The scientific evidence does not support its use, and there's evidence that marijuana can be harmful," Napoli, a psychiatrist of 40 years, said in an interview. He said a 2015 study conducted by Yale University researchers found a correlation between marijuana use and incidences of violence. That study, he said, also found marijuana worsens PTSD.
Napoli said he is not aware of any other study with similar conclusions, or of any "studies that support marijuana's effectiveness for PTSD."
One reason is that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has classified marijuana as a Class 1 drug, the most dangerous and on par with heroin, and with no medical value. Researchers have found it difficult to get permission to study it for decades. On Thursday, the DEA decided against changing the classification, again citing the lack of studies and proof marijuana is not dangerous.
Marijuana advocates say studies conducted in Israel, Britain, and other countries show cannabis has brought relief from various ailments. Anecdotally, thousands of marijuana patients across the country are also reporting cannabis has helped them.
One U.S. medical doctor, Suzanne Sisley, spent nearly seven years attempting to obtain cannabis from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to study its effects on PTSD. She recently got approval from the DEA to proceed, and has obtained a $2.2 million grant from the state of Colorado to pay for it.
Sisley is seeking 76 combat veterans with PTSD to volunteer to smoke either two marijuana cigarettes (or a placebo) each day for 12 weeks for her research. The study is expected to take two years to complete.
For months, Congress has also debated the role of medical marijuana in helping those with PTSD. Lawmakers are discussing whether to give VA doctors the freedom to recommend cannabis for veterans who live in states with medical marijuana programs.
Ken Wolski, executive director of Coalition Medical Marijuana New Jersey, said that veterans and other patients simply want the right to use marijuana if their doctors agree. "We should let it be up to their doctors and them," he said.