Washington lawmakers consider medical marijuana to treat PTSD

People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder would become eligible to use medical marijuana under a proposal being considered in the Legislature.

Several veterans showed up Tuesday at the Capitol to testify in favor of Senate Bill 5379, which would add PTSD to the list of terminal or debilitating conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana use.

PTSD is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event.”

Under state law, conditions now eligible to be treated with medical marijuana include cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, intractable pain, glaucoma and Crohn’s disease.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said that adding PTSD to the list of eligible diagnoses would help veterans who continue to suffer from wartime injuries and psychological stress.

Hobbs, who is the prime sponsor of the legislation, served in Kosovo and Iraq and is a member of the Army National Guard.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved two types of antidepressants to help treat PTSD, but Hobbs said he thinks medical marijuana should be available as a treatment too.

“This is just another option for these men and women who have suffered from the wars,” Hobbs said. “One size does not fit all.”

Active duty service members and reservists are banned from using marijuana under federal rules, even if it is to treat a medical condition. Veterans who have left the service, however, are not subject to the same rules, and several veterans told lawmakers Tuesday that using cannabis won’t affect the federal disability benefits they receive.

Cory Kemp, an Air Force veteran who was blinded by an injury in Afghanistan in 2010, said he used to take pharmaceuticals to treat his PTSD and the brain injury he sustained in combat. But the drugs caused unwanted side effects, such as anxiety and stomach cramps, he said.

“I was pretty much confined to the couch 24 hours a day,” said Kemp, a former explosive ordnance technician who lives in Rainier.

Since late 2013, Kemp said, he has been using cannabis exclusively and has found it relieves his symptoms with fewer side effects.

“He has a normal life now — as best as he’s going to get with being 100 percent blind and having PTSD and a brain injury,” said Tara Kemp, Cory Kemp’s wife and caregiver.

Others said cannabis relieves symptoms of PTSD and anxiety so well that it has kept many veterans from committing suicide.

“Without it, I wouldn’t be alive today,” said Randy Madden of Olympia, who said he suffers from flashbacks and anxiety stemming from his time in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.

Critics of the bill said that data are still scarce on how well marijuana treats PTSD and how its use affects patients over time.

Seth Dawson with the Washington Association for Substance Abuse Prevention said some studies have shown that marijuana use can actually worsen the symptoms of PTSD sufferers.

“We wish there were studies to the contrary, but we’re not aware of them,” said Dawson, who spoke also on behalf of the Washington State Psychiatric Association.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said she wants veterans to get the treatment they need, but “there are a lot of unanswered questions” surrounding using marijuana to treat PTSD.

“We still don’t know what the effects on the brain are from long-term usage,” Bailey said. “I want to see more research.”