Long Island veterans are awaiting a decision from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on whether he will sign a bill permitting medical marijuana to help combat PTSD, a treatment option not recommended by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs but supported by many former service members and their advocates.
Legislation adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of 11 serious medical conditions eligible for medical marijuana was recently approved by the State Legislature and is now under review by the governor’s legal counsel and the state Department of Health, a spokesman for Cuomo said.
Cuomo has not indicated whether he will support the bill, though legislators said they are optimistic following recent expansions to the program, such as allowing the drug in more forms such as lozenges and ointments, which they said signals a greater openness to its use as a treatment option.
The bill’s sponsors and other legislators have touted the bill as a necessary aid to those with PTSD, whose ranks include many of New York’s estimated 900,000 veterans, according to the VA.
State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said veterans rely on a “cocktail of drugs” such as antidepressants like Zoloft, despite reports of little relief and escalating fears about the addictive nature of many prescription drugs.
“We need to solve this problem,” Savino said. “We [New York] would be an outlier if we didn’t add it.”
Others don’t think marijuana is an appropriate solution to treat PTSD. A handful of Long Island politicians, including state Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) and state Sen. Thomas Croci (R-Sayville), chair of the Senate Veterans Committee, voted against the bill, citing the drug’s federal classification status and lack of conclusive research about the effectiveness of marijuana to relieve PTSD symptoms.
“Outside the state of New York, the government considers it [marijuana] illegal,” Croci, a Navy reservist, said on the Senate floor this past June. “I think you’re just masking their symptoms . . . I think we’re premature.”
The VA defines PTSD as a “mental health condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault” that significantly impacts daily life.
According to the VA website, “there is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD” and “research suggests that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD.” A 2013 study published in The American Journal on Addictions concluded that those with PTSD can experience cannabis use problems, such as heightened withdrawal during attempts to quit.
VA health care clinicians follow federal laws, are prohibited from prescribing medical marijuana and will not fill or fund prescriptions, according to the agency’s website.
Suffolk County has the largest veteran population — 76,263 — in New York State, according to a 2015 report by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office. Nassau is home to more than 54,000 veterans.
Patrick Donohue of Islip is one of these veterans. Donohue, 36, was a combat soldier for three years, serving one tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was part of a counter-insurgent mission against Taliban forces. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011 while still in the Army, and said he was prescribed dozens of drugs. During the worst of his illness, he said he was hospitalized multiple times for his symptoms. He said medical marijuana quells his symptoms of anger, anxiety and avoidance, with results far surpassing the opiates and other prescription drugs he had previously tried.
“It’s been a long road here,” said Donohue, a real estate agent and the founder of a veterans support nonprofit called Project 9 Line. “Only four years ago, I couldn’t leave my home . . . Maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard had I had the correct treatment earlier on.”
Donohue is part of a growing number of veterans in New York who are self-medicating with marijuana to help fix what antidepressants couldn’t.
Robert Griffiths, 32, of Brooklyn, a Navy veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD three years ago, credits marijuana with helping him through his daily struggle with depression. He said the drug helps him cut through negative thoughts, without rendering him emotionally absent like Zoloft used to.
Griffiths, who is a social worker, described PTSD as an “invisible wound” that others often fail to see. “PTSD isn’t just a veteran issue . . . There’s no doubt people know people who suffer from PTSD. It’s very real.”
Advocates and opponents
Marijuana remains a drug classified on the same federal level as heroin, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential of abuse,” according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
This status “severely impedes” research on therapeutic use by increasing the cost of marijuana used for research and restricting grant funds, among other effects, according to a 2013 article published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
There is also increasing federal pushback on state medical marijuana programs. In a May letter to Congress, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked the legislature to reverse federal protections for state programs, linking marijuana to a “historic drug epidemic” and “violent crime.”
Despite the obstacles, a growing number of veterans groups support the legislature bill. Bob Becker, legislative chairman of the New York State Council of Veterans Organizations, said the bill was a strong “asset” to those with PTSD.
“I think you’re going to have people who are going to question it, but we have to look at how we can help each other, instead of standing there and suffering,” Becker said.
If Cuomo signs the bill into law, New York would become the 27th of 29 states with medical marijuana programs that include PTSD.
Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said it all “boils down to providing working treatment for people who are really suffering.” Cuomo’s signature would send a “powerful message” that the state cares about helping them, Gottfried said.
Veterans said that gaining access to legal medical marijuana would help reduce the stigma of its use, bring greater awareness to mental health issues and ultimately help them rebuild their lives.
“I wouldn’t have to hide it,” Donohue said. “I’m committing a crime [by purchasing marijuana] and that’s not fair . . . The people who are telling us we can’t smoke pot sent us to war.”
- The symptoms include reliving the traumatic event, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, experiencing more negative beliefs and feelings, feeling keyed up and on edge.
- About 7 percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lifetime.
- Many people with PTSD also have other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and problems with substance abuse.
- Only two drugs have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration to treat it — Zoloft and Paxil.
PTSD and veterans
- The largest living group of U.S. veterans served during the Vietnam War; an estimated 30 percent of them have had PTSD in their lifetime.
- Up to 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD “in a given year,” according to the VA.
- On Long Island in 2011, an estimated 2,283 veterans in Nassau and 4,015 Suffolk had returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sources: Department of Veterans Affairs, Bureau of Labor Statistics