Dr. Jennifer Hagman noted that more research is ongoing and that the state of Colorado has put money toward research on marijuana’s effects on those with PTSD. Pictured: Mike Whiter, who served as a Marine, smokes marijuana before he starts editing a video project at his home in Philadelphia on March 10, 2016. (Mel Evans, The Associated Press)

Colorado lawmakers push PTSD bill to address pleas for medical marijuana

Efforts over the years to add PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in Colorado have been met with failure.

The Colorado Board of Health denied multiple petitions for the inclusion, citing the need for more scientific evidence; bills’ trips through the General Assembly have been short-lived; and veterans and PTSD-sufferers’ legal bids were quashed.

2017 brings with it renewed pushes — both legislatively and legally — to establish PTSD as a qualifying condition.

“I’ve met a number of veterans who really feel like it improved their quality of life,” said Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat and physician who co-sponsored a bill to have PTSD and acute stress disorders be considered “debilitating medical conditions” under the state’s medical marijuana law.

In a time when concern is heightened about veterans’ increased risk of suicide, there should be consideration for all potential options to help prevent that, Aguilar said.

Senate Bill 17, co-sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, is expected to go before the Senate’s State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee next week. The initial committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday was postponed as lawmakers evaluate whether there is a legislative mechanism to add a qualifying condition or if that is limited to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Aguilar said.

Some of the initial opposition to the bill has come from members of the medical community, including the Colorado Psychiatric Society.

“Our main concern is really the risk of harm to the individual,” said Dr. Jennifer Hagman, representing the Colorado Psychiatric Society.

And the physicians’ edict of “first, do no harm” is accomplished with knowledge from rigorous studies, research and evidence, she said.

“I would hope that we continue to wait until there’s adequate scientific support for using marijuana for this condition,” she said. “I think it’s premature and the data isn’t there.”

The limited data people are working with around veterans with PTSD and marijuana, she said, has shown negative correlations. She noted a longitudinal study of veterans over a period of 30 years that showed some who started using marijuana following treatment had increased incidences of violent behavior.

Hagman noted that more research is ongoing and that the state of Colorado has put money toward research on marijuana’s effects on those with PTSD. The study, in the works since 2010, received federal approval in 2016, a year and a half after Colorado awarded the grant.

“I think the best thing that could happen is for the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule I so that research is much easier to do,” she said.

Happening in the background of this latest play from lawmakers is an ongoing appeals case in state court that challenges the board of health’s 2015 decision on PTSD. And nationally, an increasingly growing slate of medical marijuana states — nearly 20 of them — have looked favorably on PTSD as a qualifying condition.

“It’s just an area that they need to permit us to catch up with other states,” said C. Adam Foster, an attorney with Denver’s Hoban Law Group. Foster represents the Colorado residents and military veterans who challenged the board of health’s position on PTSD in district court and subsequently appealed the district court’s denial.

Colorado’s board of health has remained firm on not including PTSD as a qualifying condition, stating that more scientific evidence is required. The board made a similar move in regards to a 2010 petition to add Tourette’s syndrome.

“The board has made this policy decision that they want to see the same type of evidence the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) looks at to approve new pharmaceutical medicines,” Foster said. “I firmly believe that they have set a standard that just cannot be met in the real world.”

Research related to the potential benefits and detrimental effects of marijuana has been limited, stifled in part by marijuana’s federal listing as a Schedule I substance, researchers and scientists have said.

“You want (veterans and other people diagnosed with PTSD) to be getting treatment from an experienced health care provider and a doctor who understands PTSD and can recommend a treatment plan — that probably will include talk therapy, some pharmaceutical medications — you want those medical providers to be able to have an honest conversation with their patients about medical marijuana,” Foster said.

Earlier this month, the Colorado Appeals Court case wrapped up the briefings stage and — barring any call for oral arguments from the judges — now is awaiting an opinion from the court. That opinion could take anywhere from three to six months, Foster said.