For these veterans, medical marijuana may be better than opioids at relieving pain and stress

By Elena Mejia Lutz, Austin Bureau | February 22, 2017
Originally published by the San Antonio Express News.

After serving in the U.S. Army for two years as a combat medic, Amanda Berard came back to San Antonio with post-traumatic stress disorder from military sexual trauma. Prescription pill bottles kept piling up, but Berard said nothing eased her anxiety or depression.

“My psychiatrists and doctors have prescribed me a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that create more symptoms that almost seem worse than the conditions they are supposed to treat,” Berard said.

Berard now works as a pediatric home health nurse and is a graduate student at the University of North Texas, where she conducts research focused on veterans with PTSD who use cannabis as a form of health care. She traveled to Colorado to interview medical cannabis users, and after using it herself for the first time, Berard was convinced it was a better answer for her illness than the extensive list of strong pharmaceuticals she had been receiving.

Wednesday, she was one of about 50 veterans who rallied at the state Capitol in support of a bill that would allow patients with debilitating medical conditions to have access to medical cannabis, if recommended by a doctor. The coalition of advocacy groups requested a meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott and delivered a petition with more than 1,400 signatures backing the bill to his office after the rally.

Senate Bill 269 , authored by state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, would allow licensed medical practitioners who hold a registry identification card issued by the Department of Public Safety to recommend — not prescribe — medical use of cannabis to seriously ill patients and determine what strains of the plant and what dosage is best for each medical condition. Patients would need to have one of the debilitating medical conditions listed in the bill, a certification by a medical practitioner and a registry card issued by DPS.

In 2015, Texas passed the Compassionate Use Act for card-holding physicians to prescribe cannabidiol, or CBD, with low amounts of THC only to epileptic patients in cases where federally approved antiepileptic drugs failed. Besides limiting use to only epileptic patients, advocates say that the law has a “fatal flaw” since it requires doctors to prescribe, instead of recommend, cannabis. This could result in a physician risking his or her license since the drug is still illegal under federal law, advocates say.

“I agree with (the governor) that children with epileptic seizures should benefit from cannabis oil, Menéndez said, referring to the Compassionate Use Act, which SB 269 aims to expand. “But then you have other patients like people with Parkinson’s or glaucoma or cancer, why shouldn’t they have the benefit of cannabis-based products as well?”

Menéndez’s bill would allow patients to lawfully use, possess or grow a limited amount of cannabis. Doctors and patients would be protected from arrest or penalties, and parents who use cannabis would be protected from any restrictions of possession of or access to their child. Independent laboratories would also be licensed and regulated to cultivate and dispense labeled and packaged medical cannabis.

Dr. Lang Coleman, a neuropsychologist that was deployed as a combat medic, has formed a corporation called Alamo CBD to apply for a license to grow and distribute CBD oil in Bexar County for the Compassionate Use Progam.

“We bought property in Wilson County where we will build a plant to raise cannabis indoors, process the plant and distribute the medicine in the San Antonio-Austin area,” Coleman said. “But what we also need in our law is the ability to do research and development, to expand diagnostic categories.”

Before signing the Compassionate Use Act into law in 2015, Abbott said Texas shouldn’t legalize marijuana or open the door for conventional marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes. An Abbott spokesman said recently that the governor’s view “has not changed on this issue.”

Advocates hope to change the governor’s mind.

“We want to see the (Compassionate Use Act) expand and include additional qualifying conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, autism or PTSD,” said John Baucum, political director of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. “One of the problems is that there is a cap in THC content in the oil. There is the fear that these kids being treated for epilepsy will get a euphoric high feeling from the THC, but the reality is that THC is therapeutic and medicinal in itself. We really need to let science lead us, not the Legislature body.”

During her visit to Colorado, Berard went to a dispensary, described her symptoms and the attendant recommended products to target her needs.

“I went back to my Airbnb, medicated myself with cannabis, and for the first time in days felt the pain and depression ease its grip,” Berard said. “I willingly and happily ate an entire meal without getting sick. I stopped shaking, I didn’t need to keep all the curtains closed. I was actually able to enjoy being in the moment instead of being fixated on the possibility of what might happen.”

Ingrid Ebbers, an Army veteran who suffers from military sexual trauma and chronic leg pain from stress fractures in her tibia, knees and femurs, said that since 2004, she has taken multiple psychotropic drugs and pain medications, including hydrocodone, Ativan and Valium, among others.

“Each of these drugs has a list of side effects a mile long including the possibility of addiction or overdose,” Ebbers said. “I told my doctors that I have a family history of drug addiction and I don’t want to go down that path.”

Texas is among the 17 states that allow use of low THC for medical reasons in limited situations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures . A total of 28 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs.

“I no longer needed my medications and I stopped having drastic side effects (in Colorado),” Berard said. “Cannabis allowed me to move throughout my days without looking over my shoulder, without reaching for a defensive tool when walking to my car alone, without isolating myself from people. For me, the most difficult part of living with PTSD is not being able to simply enjoy the present. Cannabis gave that back to me.”

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