Medical marijuana for PTSD: Updates to policy and the ongoing limitations

Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

House Bill 65 was passed by Georgia legislature and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 8 to continue the expansion of medical marijuana, adding more treatable conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It will take effect on July 1.

Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State School of Public Health said, “One of the challenges for medical marijuana is that it hasn’t been studied for most of the conditions that it is being used for. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, as long as it is structured in a way that the science is also advanced.”

In the state of Georgia, marijuana has not been decriminalized, as the possession of one ounce can result in a misdemeanor, one year of incarceration and a fine of $1,000.

“It’s mostly a lack of research, in part because marijuana has been illegal in most states for so long. There hasn’t really been a scientific space to rigorously study it,” Heiman said. “For example, we don’t know if there is a relationship between the dose and the effect. For many of the prescription medications that we use, there is a dose at which it is very effective and dose where it can become dangerous or toxic.”

With the newest expansion brought by HB 65, treatable conditions have increased to over a dozen. However, while the possession of marijuana for medical use has expanded, there is no process in place for patients to lawfully obtain the product.

“That may be true for medical marijuana in terms of use for a condition like post-traumatic stress. We don’t know that because we haven’t been able to study it in a comprehensive way,” Heiman said.

However, two bills have been proposed to change state laws. Both HB 865 and SB 105, if passed, would lower penalties for possession of one-half an ounce of marijuana, including no jail time. Still, Heiman said a bigger obstacle remains.

“The greatest barrier for mental health is access to healthcare. Expanding Medicaid would give access to insurance to about 500,000 Georgians, a significant number of those have behavioral health problems and a significant number who are military veterans,” he said.

Medicaid was developed as coverage for low income families, as part of the Affordable Care Act.

“States have the ability to choose to participate or not participate,” Heiman said. “What Georgia has decided is not to do so, passing up about 3 billion dollars a year that we would get to help cover that.”

In result, Heiman saw the new policy as a scratch on the surface.

“If you look at the healthcare related legislation that has happened in Georgia, it’s mostly working at the margins, which is to say that making little fixes here and there, which are going to help a few people, maybe,” He said. “But it’s not addressing the fundamental problems that underlie the system. We aren’t going to meaningfully improve care for people with mental health disorders by legalizing medical marijuana for people with PTSD.”

HB 645 was proposed last year to allow for the production and dispensing of low THC oil, the form used for Georgia medical marijuana treatment. This bill has a 7% estimated chance of passing, according to Georgia Legislative Navigator.

Since there is no law in place for the harvest, transportation or dispension of marijuana or low-THC oil, patients cannot receive treatment in Georgia.

In order to receive treatment, patients must travel to another state that does have these laws in place, obtain the product and return to Georgia. Patients then run the risk of receiving penalties for bringing a controlled substance across state lines.

While treatment for PTSD by medical marijuana is limited, there are other options for those coping with symptoms.

Dr. Lee-Barber is the senior director of the Georgia State Counseling and Testing Center. She described the services available to students and how this pertains to medical marijuana.

“We have board certified psychiatrists on staff at the Counseling & Testing Center who can prescribe medication to students for a variety of presenting concerns such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder,” Lee-Barber said. “The Center is not registered with the state of Georgia to be allowed to prescribe medical marijuana.”

Dr. Lee-Barber said there are some treatment options available for PTSD according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD.

“The treatments with the most research support include trauma focused psychotherapies,” she said. “The treatments use different techniques to help a person process and re-process traumatic experiences. Some involve visualizing, talking or thinking about the traumatic memory. Other focus on changing unhelpful beliefs about the trauma.”

Lee-Barber identified the most important aspect for students.

“Most importantly, students who are coping with a condition like PTSD should know that they don’t need to go this alone,” she said. “If you have PTSD, research shows your best chance of getting better is by working directly with a mental health or medical provider.”

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