Lawmakers and veterans are split on legislation that would allow sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder access to medical marijuana through the state Compassionate Care program as it sits on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk waiting for his decision.
Both houses of the state Legislature passed a bill this year that would allow the use of liquid or vapor marijuana to treat PTSD under its current law that allows such prescriptions for certain conditions.
“[The governor] has 10 days to sign it. It is on his desk,” said Robert Becker, executive director of the veterans council, a group that advocated for the passage of the bill. “Hopefully he is looking at it.”
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-102, said he believes the governor will sign the legislation into law.
“I think he will sign it. I don’t know why he wouldn’t,” Lopez said.
According to data collected by the RAND Corp., a think tank that does research on the U.S. military, 8,000 veterans from New York who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD.
According to the same data, more than 750 servicemen and women from the Capital Region suffer from PTSD, including 23 from Columbia County and 10 from Greene County.
Several Columbia and Greene county representatives in Albany, including Lopez, voted to pass the legislation.
“I support the use of medical marijuana for our returning military who suffer with either physical or mental health conditions, including PTSD,” said Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106. “These brave men and women have endured extraordinary circumstances to protect our freedoms and they struggle on many fronts when they return to civilian life. It is our duty to ensure they have access to the best and most effective treatments available to help them heal in every way possible.”
But two senators from the Columbia-Greene area opposed the bill; Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-43, and Sen. George Amedore, R-46.
“I voted no on this legislation because it lacked a necessary holistic approach that should include counseling as part of any treatment for PTSD, which is such a serious issue affecting our veterans,” said Marchione, who is a member of the Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee.
Amedore, who is also a member of that committee, could not be reached for comment.
Gary Flaherty, executive director of the Columbia County Veteran Services Department and a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he staunchly opposes the legislation.
“I had bad experiences in Vietnam where men would smoke marijuana to get the nerve to do patrols. I had to remove people from teams because they smoked,” said Flaherty, who is a retired commanding sergeant major from the Army. “As soon as I got back I was experiencing PTSD.”
Flaherty said he received counseling for 16 years for combat PTSD, but he still suffers from nightmares.
“I take small doses of diazepam to sleep at night. It seems like doctors are quick to give drugs to treat PTSD,” he said. “I never took alcohol or drugs.”
Flaherty helps veterans in court to get them treatment or compensation and said 60 percent of the veterans he works with have PTSD.
“I am working 65 cases right now. I talked three veterans out of suicide last year,” he said. “A lot of the veterans I work with who got in trouble started with marijuana. A lot of veterans I know with PTSD would not want to add marijuana to the list of drugs they take.”
New York finalized its medical marijuana program in 2014.
“In 2014, I supported the Compassionate Care Act that authorized the use of medical marijuana for patients suffering from cancer and other diseases,” Marchione said. “I also have a strong record of securing funding for the Dwyer Program that provides vital, life-saving counseling for our veterans struggling with PTSD. I will continue advocating for, and working with, the men and women of our armed forces to whom we owe everything.”
Lopez said he opposed the original medical marijuana legislation because it left people to find marijuana plants or other marijuana on their own.
“I wanted the same process as any other medication; doctors prescribe the drug and pharmacists distribute,” Lopez said. “Now we have a thoughtful and safe process for getting medical marijuana.”
A problem arises because the federal government still considers marijuana a schedule one controlled substance, ranking with heroin and LSD, and so prohibits Veterans Affairs clinics in states that allow medical marijuana use to prescribe the drug.
“I’m disappointed the federal government has not done the same thing we have done in New York,” Lopez said. “We have so many drugs that are worse that doctors can prescribe.”
The VA Hospital in Albany, which serves veterans from Columbia and Greene counties, provides help to veterans suffering from PTSD.
“We have expanded social work to the Catskill area,” said Jennifer Audette, chief of social work at the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany. “We also have a program that veterans can connect with a mental health clinician on a tablet for treatment.”
Veterans can use their own tablets or iPads or the VA provides them with one, all after a psychological evaluation.
The House of Representatives is sitting on a bill that would require the secretary of Veteran Affairs to allow VA health care providers to offer recommendations and opinions to patients on participating in state medical marijuana programs.
A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, said the congressman is reviewing the legislation and will vote on it when it comes to the floor, but refused to comment on medical marijuana and if VA clinics should be allowed to prescribe the drug.
“There are people suffering out there and it is our job to allow them to get relief,” Lopez said. “If we can help these people get relief in a humane and safe way that is good for everyone.”