PHOENIX — Thousands of Arizona veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder will soon be able to obtain marijuana legally.
State health director Will Humble decided Wednesday there is at least one study showing the drug can be helpful in treating the symptoms of PTSD. He said that, combined with some anecdotal evidence, provides what he needs under Arizona law to allow doctor with a qualifying patient to recommend the drug.
But Humble said he is approving the drug for use only to help patients deal with the symptoms of PTSD. He said there is no evidence that marijuana can be useful to actually treat or cure the condition.
Humble placed one other limit on doctors: Before they can recommend marijuana to deal with PTSD symptoms, they must first attest the patient has been undergoing more conventional treatments. That would require doctors to first try something else rather than simply using marijuana as the first choice.
Tucson attorney Ken Sobel, who represents the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association, which petitioned for the change, called Wednesday’s action a “landmark.” He pointed out this is the first time since voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 2010 for certain specified conditions that a new one has been added.
But Sobel said a new legal fight may be brewing. He contends Humble’s authority under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act and the rules that implement it is limited to deciding what conditions allow a doctor to recommend the drug to patients.
“There is nothing in the rules that, once a condition is listed, it allows the (health) department to impose conditions,” Sobel said. But he said he has made no decision on whether to take the issue to court.
The voter-approved law allows the use of the drug by patients suffering from a list of specific medical conditions, ranging from glaucoma and AIDS to any chronic or debilitating condition that leads to severe and chronic plan.
So far, close to 50,000 people have qualified under the existing list of conditions to purchase up to 2ƒ ounces of marijuana every two weeks.
But the law also requires Humble to consider requests for expanding the list of conditions for which marijuana can be recommended.
Humble rejected two previous efforts to add PTSD to the list but did contract with the College of Public Health and University of Arizona to examine peer-reviewed studies to determine whether there is any basis for that addition.
Humble said he needed peer-reviewed scientific studies to show any beneficial link between marijuana and PTSD. And Humble pointed out that the UA review found only “observational studies of varying quality,” with the conclusion that “the totality of this evidence should be considered very low quality with a high degree of uncertainty.”
That last rejection resulted in an appeal by Sobel’s clients. And last month, Thomas Shedden, a state administrative law judge, said Humble should grant their request.
Shedden conceded there was a lack of scientific studies. But the judge said the health chief should also have considered the anecdotal testimony of doctors and nurses who said the drug has helped their patients.
Humble, in Wednesday’s order, acknowledged Shedden’s point.
But Humble said proponents actually had more. He said they presented evidence to Shedden of a manuscript — not yet published at the time — that found “an association between cannabis used and PTSD symptoms in some patients,” which provided the evidence he needed.
The number of people who could benefit is unclear.
Sobel said there was testimony by a doctor that perhaps 500,000 Arizonans — close to 1 out of every 13 — suffer from PTSD. But he said many may not be aware of it.
Vietnam Veterans of America estimates that 30 percent of those who served in that conflict are affected by PTSD, with a likely similar percentage of those who have served more recently in the Middle East.