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New Jersey Vets Demand Medical Marijuana, But Will Chris Christie Approve?

After passing with an overwhelming majority, the bill to add PTSD to New Jersey’s medical marijuana program now awaits Gov. Christie’s signature.

“There are 22 veterans a day committing suicide,” remarked New Jersey veteran Leo Bridgewater. “That’s unacceptable. [Marijuana] can help.”

89 percent of Americans agree with this statement. Not necessarily that marijuana is the complete solution, but that 22 veteran suicides a day is simply unacceptable. Anything that can be done to ease the suffering of this group should be done, including legalizing the use of medical marijuana for PTSD. At least, that’s the opinion of New Jersey’s lawmakers, who have recently sent a bill adding PTSD to the state’s medical marijuana program to Gov. Christie’s desk.

“Veterans — especially post-9/11 veterans — are the group most affected by PTSD,” New Jersey Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo revealed in a statement. “The VA has stated that it wants each veteran to find the medication with the least amount of side effects that allows them the optimum level of independence. For many, medical marijuana is the drug that best fits that criteria, and the only one to provide veterans with significant relief from the anxiety associated with PTSD.”

Despite quotes like this, vets in New Jersey who do use marijuana for their PTSD do so illegally. That is because PTSD is not currently on the list of approved conditions under New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.

Vets in New Jersey have been forthright in their call for PTSD to be added to the list of approved conditions for the medical marijuana program in the state, and lawmakers have listened. Early in August, they passed measure A457 to add PTSD to the state’s list of qualifying conditions.

The bill doesn’t stop at allowing medical marijuana for vets. Anyone diagnosed with intractable PTSD would be able to legally access marijuana through the state’s authorized dispensaries. This opens up relief for rape victims, those abused as children, and anyone who has faced a traumatic experience in life.

According to the measure, patients must show their PTSD to be “resistant to conventional medical therapy, which generally combines psychotherapy with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.” Currently, over half the states in the U.S. with medical marijuana laws allow its use for PTSD.

The bill’s future is in limbo, though. The state’s governor Chris Christie is a staunch opponent to medical marijuana and has interrupted the progress of the state’s medical marijuana program in the past.

Medical marijuana became legal in New Jersey shortly before Gov. Christie took office, enacted into law by his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine. Christie’s critics blame him for the nearly two year delay in the opening of marijuana dispensaries in the state, among other difficulties the program has faced.

Democrat Tim Eustace, D-Maywood, a co-sponsor of the new bill, said, “I honestly think [PTSD] should have been on the list to begin with.” As a practicing chiropractor, Eustace claims he has regularly seen patients who are unable to achieve relief with traditional medications from both pain and psychological issues.

Voters in New Jersey appear to agree with their lawmakers. An Asbury Park Press readers poll published on the paper’s website showed that 85% of readers supported medical marijuana for vets to treat their PTSD.

The bill has had its opponents, though, and often they quote a lack of research into cannabis as the reason for their opposition.

“What is the scientific evidence for medical marijuana being an effective treatment?” said Joseph Napoli, past president of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association during testimony on the bill. “We have very sparse evidence.”

Dr. Sue Sisley, a medical researcher who fought for years to conduct a study for vets linking PTSD and medical marijuana, is hoping to provide the evidence that opponents to medical marijuana claim is missing. After years of delays, her study has been approved by the DEA, and her team received the necessary funding from the state of Colorado to move forward. Over the next year, Sisley hopes to use observational data and the self-reporting of cannabis using vets to determine the potential for marijuana to be used as an effective PTSD treatment.

Some lawmakers in New Jersey, however, don’t feel veterans should be made to wait. “This is an issue of compassion,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan. Veterans “don’t have time to wait around for trials. They don’t have time for us to accumulate three or four or five years of science.”

New Jersey’s PTSD bill easily passed in both the state Assembly and the state Senate this summer.

“When it comes to PTSD, medical marijuana holds the promise of providing significant relief as it does for many other illnesses and conditions that are not easily treatable with traditional medication,” Eustace said.

For now, the bill’s fate rests solely in the hands of Gov. Christie. He has not been a supporter of medical marijuana in the past, often vetoing bills aimed at expanding medical marijuana in his state.

“Historically, [Gov. Christie] has been reluctant to make any changes” to New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, state Sen. Joe Vitale told Leafly. “We’re stuck with a piecemeal approach to increase access.”

During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Gov. Christie came out staunchly in opposition of medical and recreational marijuana.

Some analysts feel it is unlikely that Christie will veto the bill outright and risk the blowback from killing such a popular measure. More likely, the governor will simply ignore it. With a year and a half left in his term, a pocket veto like this would allow him to simply pass the buck to his successor.

For now, all New Jersey’s veterans can do is hold their breath and wait.

To learn more about New Jersey’s medical marijuana laws and qualifying conditions, visit our education page.