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Cuomo will decide on bill to expand medical marijuana for PTSD

Matt Ryan New York Now

A bill to expand New York state’s medical marijuana program to cover sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder passed both houses of the Legislature, but will Gov. Andrew Cuomo sign it into law?

New York’s medical marijuana program is far more restrictive than most states. About a dozen conditions are eligible for treatment, including, according to the State Health Department, “severe and debilitating” forms of cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

Sponsors of a bill that passed the Senate and the Assembly say post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, needs to be added to that list.

Sen. Diane Savino, an independent Democrat from Staten Island, said during debate on the Senate floor in late June that the measure is primarily aimed at veterans. She said many vets with PTSD are prescribed strong and addictive drugs like Valium, and Ativan.

“They are living on toxic chemicals,” Savino said. “And what they are asking for is the option for an alternative treatment.”

Bob Becker is with the New York State Council of Veterans Organizations, which backs the bill. He agrees that many veterans with PTSD are prescribed drugs that are strong and potentially dangerous.

“They are always in some kind of chronic pain, depression,” Becker said. “This makes them relax and feel better.”

Becker said he initially worried about whether the drug would make people “high,” but he said he believes it can be manufactured to minimize those effects.

“I don’t think they’ll be walking around high,” Becker said. “I think they’ll be walking around feeling better.”

The drug would be offered as a liquid or oil for vaporization or in pill form, and contains much lower amounts of the psychoactive ingredient THC than does recreational marijuana. It cannot be smoked.

Under the bill, others who suffer from PTSD — including firefighters, police officers and victims of domestic violence or rape — also would be eligible for medical marijuana as a treatment.

Savino said it’s particularly important that veterans have access to a state-sanctioned medical marijuana program because veterans who buy marijuana illegally risk losing all of their VA health benefits if they are caught.

“If they are utilizing marijuana outside of a licensed medical marijuana program in their state, they run the risk they will be penalized by the Veterans Administration,” Savino said.

Federal laws still prohibit the use of marijuana for any use.

Sen. Tom Croci, a Republican from Long Island who was a U.S. Navy officer before he entered politics, said the fact that marijuana is illegal in this country is one of several reasons he is against the bill. He said scientific studies on the effectiveness of using marijuana to treat PTSD are inconclusive. There are federal restrictions on research on the effects of medical marijuana. He said the state should follow the Hippocratic oath and “do no harm.”

“I think we’re premature,” Croci said.

Croci said he supports alternative treatments for PTSD that do not involve drugs, including cognitive therapy. He said using medical marijuana might just be “masking” sufferers’ symptoms.

Cuomo has been very cautious about allowing the use of medical marijuana, saying he wanted to start slowly, and he does not support recreational marijuana. Cuomo was asked recently whether he might sign the bill when it comes to his desk later this summer. He was noncommittal.

“We want to make sure medical marijuana is medical marijuana,” Cuomo said. “So we’re careful about what diseases it covers.”

Twenty-eight other states already permit the use of medical marijuana for PTSD. Savino said New York, with its current prohibition of the treatment, is an “outlier.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.