Army veteran Matt Kahl moved from North Carolina to Colorado because of the Western state’s law allowing him to use marijuana to treat pain he’d been suffering since a 2010 battlefield injury in Afghanistan.
Kahl helped persuade Colorado lawmakers last year to include PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, among the ailments for which medical marijuana can be prescribed. Now he’s preparing to take his advocacy to the nation’s capital because of concerns about the hard line Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken on marijuana.
Sessions has openly questioned the national movement toward decriminalizing and even legalizing pot, reaffirming recently that federal law enforcement would continue to treat marijuana as an illegal substance. In recent years, the feds have taken a hands-off approach to enforcement in the wake of moves by the states to legalize the drug for medical reasons and recreational use. But Kahl is among those fearful for gains they say help veterans and for research they see as crucial.
Sessions “thinks it’s purely a recreational drug that is ruining our nation’s youth,” Kahl says. “He’s wrong.”
Colorado voters in 2000 passed a state constitutional amendment making it legal to use marijuana to treat conditions such as severe pain, though not initially PTSD. A 2012 Colorado constitutional amendment legalized recreational marijuana.
In a January memorandum to all U.S. attorneys, Sessions rescinded what he called “unnecessary” guidance on marijuana enforcement during the Barack Obama administration. Sessions said federal prosecutors should weigh the seriousness of the crimes, their impact on communities and the potential for deterrence in deciding whether to pursue marijuana cases. He pointed out that Congress had determined that “marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”
Prosecutors under Obama also had noted dangers and seriousness. But a 2009 document known as the Ogden memorandum, after the deputy attorney general who wrote it, indicated that federal prosecutors would not make pot cases a high priority in states with legalized marijuana unless the crimes involving the drug also involved such elements as violence, sales to minors or money laundering.
Colorado state health department official Dr. Ken Gershman says that after the Ogden memo signaled the federal stance, the number of patients on his department’s marijuana patient rolls quickly went from the thousands to more than 100,000. Millions of dollars more than had been expected accumulated before officials could adjust registration fees. Lawmakers, who had ordered the fees could not exceed administration costs, eventually allowed the health department to use the extra cash to fund research.
Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, the primary investigator on two studies funded by Colorado, is a nationally known specialist on PTSD and veterans who has done extensive research on marijuana. He says studies have shown high concentrations of the cannabinoid compound in marijuana known as THC can be addictive and may increase anxiety and sleep trouble. Bonn-Miller says CBD – another cannabinoid, but one that won’t get you high – is less risky and may help with conditions such as inflammation, anxiety and sleep problems, which could be important for veterans with traumatic brain injury.
“It’s really complex,” Bonn-Miller says. “A lot of researchers are trying to figure this out to help inform the discussion.”
Bonn-Miller believes Sessions won’t stand in the way, saying, “he’s taking a hard line on consumer use. But not on the research side.”
Bonn-Miller’s Colorado-funded research includes a $2 million, randomized controlled trial of the effects of marijuana on veterans with PTSD. That first-of-its-kind study, being conducted in Arizona and sponsored by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, got federal permission under President Obama for whole plant marijuana to be given to human subjects.
Gershman, who manages marijuana research grants for the state, says he expected the Arizona study and others to be completed. They took years to plan and won’t yield results for several more. Going forward, Gershman acknowledges questions have been raised by the Trump administration’s apparent stalling of Drug Enforcement Administration plans to expand the number of laboratories that can grow research marijuana. Only the University of Mississippi does so now. In 2016, the DEA said it wanted to register more labs “to foster research.”
Sessions was asked for an update on the search for more suppliers during a U.S. Senate hearing in October. He said he believed 26 potential suppliers had applied for DEA approval, and that gave him pause.
“I have raised questions about how many and let’s be sure we’re doing this in the right way,” he said, noting supervising new suppliers would carry a cost. “I think it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply, but … I’m sure we don’t need 26 new suppliers.”
Department of Justice spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam referred U.S. News to Sessions’ comments and said she could provide no further information.
Colorado’s Gershman says, “It’s pretty clear that the DEA under the Trump administration wasn’t prepared to move this forward.”
Dr. Sue Sisley, the lead researcher in Arizona on the PTSD pot study, applied for DEA permission to grow marijuana.
“Nobody even knows what the regulations are,” she says. “What is the DEA looking for?”
While Sisley has University of Mississippi supplies, she has felt stymied because the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix has refused to refer potential study subjects. Sisley has sought recruits by visiting veterans groups and other means, but worries she may have to augment her pool with non-vets.
Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesman in Washington, told U.S. News: “Unfortunately, the federal law prohibits VA from recommending veterans participate in any studies related to medicinal marijuana. There is no getting around that.”
VA Secretary David Shulkin has said the Congress could change the law to ease research. During a recent Senate hearing in which he was asked about Sessions’ stance, Shulkin said he was “in favor of exploring anything that will help our veterans be able to relieve some of their suffering.”
Weed for Warriors Project President Sean Kiernan says he hoped Sessions would not target veterans who speak out for medical marijuana and marijuana research.
“I’m going to assume we’re not the people Jeff Sessions is going to want to go after Day 1,” says Kiernan, whose group started in the San Francisco area in 2014 to help veterans get free medical marijuana.
During a 2010 deployment in Afghanistan, Army gunner Kahl’s vehicle hit a ditch and he was thrown from the turret. He suffered broken bones and teeth, spinal damage and traumatic brain injury, adding to mental stresses he had been coping with since a previous deployment in 2007.
Back home and out of the Army because of his injuries, Kahl found the cocktail of conventional medicines he was being prescribed was taking a physical and mental toll. Other veterans told him marijuana was a gentler way. A friend offered him a puff.
“The pain definitely went away. Even more so than the pain, it was the intrusive thoughts … and hypervigilance,” Kahl says, describing two hallmarks of PTSD.
Kahl moved to Colorado in 2013. In 2015 he founded Veterans for Natural Rights, which has lobbied in several states for medical marijuana legislation and for the use of pot to treat PTSD.
In the wake of the Sessions memo, Kahl was planning a gathering of activists in the nation’s capital in the spring.
“We have to act,” he says. “We have to speak up.”