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Medical marijuana supporters decry PTSD research bill halt

(Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

(Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Army Sergeant First Class Justin Henry led a platoon of soldiers in Iraq from 2004 to 2006 and again from 2007 to 2009. As the platoon sergeant, he was charged with looking out for the safety and well-being of about 35 cavalrymen.

His duty to his soldiers didn’t end when he returned from war, though. Depression, anxiety, paranoia, flashbacks, nightmares, chronic sleep deprivation and substance abuse associated with post-traumatic stress were the new enemy.

“I’ve received those 2 a.m. phone calls when one of my soldiers has been admitted to the hospital for opiate overdose or an alcohol overdose, because they’re trying to drink their problems away,” Henry said.

But he’s also observed that marijuana has helped some soldiers to ease symptoms and reintegrate into post-war life.

“We owe it to the veterans community to look into all avenues that can possibly help this issue,” Henry said.

That’s why he and about 100 other activists rallied at the state Capitol on April 2. They want medical research to validate what they believe can help the millions of Americans trying to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And they want Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, to account for what they describe as single-handedly stopping a bill that would have allowed that research to happen.

Currently, PTSD is not a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in Arizona. Petitions to add it to the list have been denied twice by the Arizona Department of Health Services, because of a lack of federally approved research. Eight of the 20 states with medical marijuana programs have added PTSD to their list of qualifying conditions.

HB2333, sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, would have allowed medical marijuana certification fees, which have accumulated to about $7.5 million in a protected coffer, to fund a University of Arizona researcher who has been given special federal permission to look into the possible medical application of marijuana for PTSD. Orr’s bill would have also allowed some of the money to be used for education efforts to discourage youth drug use.

Dr. Sue Sisley, the UofA researcher who was given permission three years ago to study the possible medical effects of marijuana for PTSD, said the three-year study she had planned to begin this summer would have cost about $700,000.

The bill moved easily through the Arizona House, with a 52-5 vote by the entire chamber, but stalled when Yee did not schedule the bill to be heard in the Senate Education Committee, which she chairs, and where Senate President Andy Biggs assigned the bill.

Sisley said the research will be delayed until a funding solution is reached.

The research would have looked at 70 veterans with “treatment resistant” PTSD, meaning they already tried Sertraline (brand named Zoloft) or Paroxetine (brand named Paxil). Those anti-depressant drugs, Sisley said, have been disappointing for PTSD treatment, but are still the go-to medication for veterans suffering from the condition.

“These patients have been through the gauntlet of every approved procedure,” Sisley said.

And the veterans considered for research must pass a clean drug test in order to qualify, to meet scientific standards for control groups.

Aside from not being effective for many taking those pharmaceutical drugs, they have side effects such as weight gain and sexual dysfunction, Sisley said.  PTSD patients frequently end up addicted to heavy-duty sleep medications like Zolpidem (brand named Ambien) and Lorazepam (brand named Ativan).

Yee had sponsored a bill this year that would have instead directed the state’s medical marijuana certification fee money to go only toward anti-drug education programs. Her bill failed in a vote on the Senate floor on March 17. It may be heard again, if the Senate president sets a date for reconsideration.

Henry, the Army veteran and a lifelong Republican, is running for an Arizona House seat in Yee’s district. He will challenge incumbent Republicans Paul Boyer and Carl Seel.

Yee has said she’s not against legitimate research, pointing out she sponsored legislation last year to allow marijuana on university campuses for such studies. But she does not think that should be a priority for using state dollars.

“I believe these funds would be better used to educate our general population, especially our youth, about the harms of recreational marijuana,” she said in a March interview.

In a prepared statement, Yee said Orr never talked with her about the bill, though Orr said he left multiple unanswered messages with her office  asking for a meeting.

— Includes information from Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services.

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