By Sarah Stenuf, New York Daily News
Nov. 16, 2017
On Veterans Day, New York joined a growing list of states that allow post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be treated with medical marijuana. As a former active-duty soldier suffering from this debilitating disease, I applaud this achievement. Gov. Cuomo has now given thousands of New Yorkers a safe and effective treatment alternative to the opioids and other powerful prescription drugs that PTSD sufferers have been forced to rely on for too long.
This expansion is especially critical in the face of federal rules that continue to block this important treatment on a national level.
I joined the Army while in college, after graduating from high school in Syracuse. Although enrolled on a Marines ROTC scholarship, I felt a calling to serve and signed up for boot camp before finishing my degree. It was following a deployment in Afghanistan that I began experiencing PTSD, a condition that seemed to be triggered after surviving a rocket-propelled grenade attack. The incident left me jumpy, tense and on edge - all hallmark symptoms of PTSD.
This diagnosis came in addition to another significant health incident that occurred during my service - an accident at the end of Basic Training that left me with a serious head injury and frequent seizures. I was able to continue my training and service only by taking prescription medications to manage my condition.
When I returned home from Afghanistan, I was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit. In my re-entry into civilian life, I was prescribed 13 medications and was taking, at one point, 60 pills a day, none of which were really helping with my pains and PTSD. In addition to the plethora of prescriptions, I was also using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
I felt suicidal and there were times when I couldn’t leave my house. These treatments and efforts to help myself clearly were not working, but I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.
Relief finally came from medical marijuana. As a New York resident, I was able to access this treatment to manage my seizures, which are a qualifying condition under the program. While using medical marijuana for my seizures, I also noticed that it helped ease my PTSD symptoms by lessening my depression and calming my nerves. I had always hated taking prescription medications and the way they made me feel. Medical marijuana has been the right treatment option for me, improving my health and allowing me to quit using powerful drugs altogether.
But it was only because of my seizures that I was able to realize these benefits. Other veterans in New York with PTSD - those who hadn’t experienced a head trauma like me or another serious injury - have been forced to wait, with opioids or isolating treatment centers as their main sources of help.
And it’s not just veterans who suffer from this debilitating disease. There are approximately 19,000 New Yorkers with PTSD, which includes first responders, abuse survivors and others who have experienced trauma. Unless they were suffering from other medical conditions that qualified, they, too, were shut out from this important treatment option.
My positive experiences with medical cannabis led me to be an activist and advocate for expanding the state’s program, and lawmakers have proven responsive. After introducing the program in 2016, Cuomo, the Department of Health and the State Legislature have improved patient access by authorizing home delivery, introducing new providers and allowing nurse practitioners to write prescriptions.
Two major patient groups - chronic pain sufferers and veterans - were initially underserved by the program, but this has been corrected. Last year, chronic pain was added as a qualifying condition, and now, finally, PTSD.
It’s estimated that up to 20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD. Many are overprescribed powerful pharmaceuticals that often do more harm than good or abandon treatment entirely because of the side effects. Medical marijuana is an important treatment option for a debilitating condition such as PTSD, and Cuomo and state leaders should be commended for taking action that will soon benefit thousands of New York patients in need of care.