The New Jersey medical marijuana program recently included post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions that are treatable with medical cannabis. This quickly brought the New Jersey medical marijuana program many applicants with PTSD, showing a broader issue. The patients could obviously see the benefits of medical marijuana for their condition, and with symptoms that are exhibited from patients with other illnesses, it is time for New Jersey to consider a revamped policy on cannabis. The New Jersey medical marijuana program could see new legislative attention in the coming months of the new year, and reformers must consider opening up the medicine for more patients.
Nearly 500 people with post-traumatic stress disorder have enrolled in the state’s medicinal marijuana program in the four months since Gov. Chris Christie agreed to include the debilitating psychiatric condition among the list of qualifying illnesses, a state Health Department spokeswoman said.
PTSD qualified 466 people for the program – representing about 4 percent of the 10,800 patients who legally purchase pot from one of the state’s five dispensaries, health department spokeswoman Donna Leusner said.
But patient advocates said the swift addition of these patients to the program demonstrates the pent-up demand for the anxiety-reducing and pain-relieving effects of the cannabis plant, as well as the need for the Christie administration to further expand the seven-year-old program.
“Although that number is pretty big, it actually could be a whole lot bigger if there weren’t so many hurdles to jump through,” said Leo Bridgewater, 41, of Trenton, an Army veteran who testified at public hearings to help pass legislation adding PTSD to the list. “We don’t have physicians who are willing to sign people up. A lot of don’t even know there is a program.”
Ken Wolski, the executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey, which organized a grassroots effort that helped pass the law and continues to advocate for improvements, said the demand also reflects the inadequate treatment options for people who live with post traumatic stress. Physicians usually write prescriptions for antidepressants, and “depression is not the main problem,” he said.
Combat veterans, crime victims and others diagnosed with the condition suffer from anxiety, sleep deprivation and nightmares, angry outbursts, self-destructive behavior, among other symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Twenty percent of veterans who served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 suffer from PTSD, according to Christie’s bill signing statement, citing the National Center for PTSD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This bill would provide struggling veterans and others with the ability to use medical marijuana to treat PTSD, but only after it has been determined by a physician or psychiatrist that conventional medical therapy is ineffective,” according to Christie’s statement.
Wolski said while he appreciated the governor’s support of the legislation including PTSD, requiring patients to try and fail using conventional medicine first is disappointing.
The uptick in new patients “also points to the broader issue of how so many other people in New Jersey are waiting for access to the appropriate treatment for their conditions,” Wolski said. The program’s medical advisory board has agreed to consider dozens of patients’ requests to add other qualifying illnesses, but the advisory board has not announced when it will hold public hearings to discuss these suggestions, he said.
The original state law enacted in 2010 recognizes six diseases that qualify patients for medical marijuana upon their doctors’ recommendation: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease; multiple sclerosis; terminal cancer; muscular dystrophy; inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease; and any terminal illness with a prognosis less than a year.
People with seizure disorders, including epilepsy, intractable skeletal muscular spasticity and glaucoma also qualify if conventional medical treatments have failed. People with HIV and AIDS and cancer qualify, too, if they suffer from severe and chronic pain, vomiting and nausea and wasting syndrome.
According to the 2015 program’s annual report, 34 percent of patients qualified for medical marijuana because they suffered from intractable skeletal muscular spasticity, or muscle spasms – the largest category. People with severe and chronic pain associated with cancer, AIDS or HIV was the second-higher category, with 26 percent.