American soldiers and veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are often given a duffle bag of drugs, from antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil to any number of highly addictive opioids. Doctors who work with these soldiers in Veterans Affairs clinics are encouraged to prescribe such medications, and any thought of prescribing alternative medicine that has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration is generally forbidden.
But some doctors break the chain. Sue Sisley is a psychiatrist who's worked with veterans for 20 years. While she has never smoked marijuana herself, she's heard how it can work from some of her patients who use it on their own to treat PTSD. "Nobody is claiming it's a cure, but they report they have been successfully managing their symptoms," she says. Sisley was set to begin studying the benefits of using medical marijuana to treat symptoms of PTSD at the University of Arizona – until she was fired in July, which she suspects happened for political reasons.
Sisley has now been nominated for a $2 million grant by Colorado's Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council to fund her triple-blind study into how marijuana can help treat PTSD. (The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's health board will approve or deny the grant on December 17th.) Sisley hopes to treat half of the 76 veterans participating in the study in Arizona, as well as cooperating with doctors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for the other half. "Johns Hopkins has a long history of doing high quality marijuana research," she says. Even so, the university has thus far only looked at possible harms of marijuana, because that's the only thing the government wanted to hear about.
One obstacle the study still faces is getting government-approved research marijuana. According to Sisley, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which provides research marijuana, won't have enough until April or May 2015. They've known about the study since 2011, and it definitely doesn't take that long to grow weed, so the veterans she knows worry that the government is stalling.
The push moved to Congress on November 21st, when Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) introduced the Veterans Equal Access Act, a bill that aims to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to certain patients. "I was surprised when it came out," says Ricardo Pereyda, a 32-year-old veteran advocate who's been at the forefront of fighting for marijuana access for veterans. Pereyda served in the Army until discharged in 2009, and has been diagnosed with PTSD. He says marijuana is the only thing that helps with his symptoms.
Arizona, where Pereyda lives, will soon join nine other states that allow PTSD as a condition warranting a medical marijuana card, even though the VA still can't recommend it because of federal law. Right now, he says, the VA can stop giving you medication if they find THC in your blood – an absurdity based on outdated policy. "I've smoked twice today," he says. "And I'm still breathing."
Pereyda doubts that the bill will pass unless the government stops classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug like heroin. He recently worked with the Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access advocacy group to send a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting marijuana be rescheduled. "The VA being a federal institution, they're not going to let their physicians prescribe or recommend a Schedule 1 narcotic," he says.
Even so, Pereyda says the political climate has noticeably changed in recent years. "What's different about this scenario is the amount of elected officials coming out and saying, 'This is bullshit. This is fuckin' hurting people,'" he says. "That swing is really encouraging."