Hurricanes feel a lot like war. You’re overtaken by an unstoppable, relentless force. Chaos ensues. Outside, people are screaming. Your neighborhood is laid to ruins. You fear for the lives of your family. The water intrudes like enemy soldiers, then leaves you only with the rotting detritus of your former life. When it’s all over, you’re expected to move on as if none of it really happened.
In Puerto Rico, last September, Hurricane Maria’s wind, rain and the state of terror that follows pummelled the island for a full 72 hours. While the official government death toll is 55, Puerto Rico’s Institute of Forensic Science officials recently admitted that nearly 500 more people died during the month of the storm than during the same period last year. The majority of the island’s residents are now suffering from what public health officials believe is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Cases of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. Moving on is difficult when the climate of fear and distress persists. A public health crisis resulting from a lack of medical resources, clean water, and proper care has already cropped up in the aftermath of the storm. Many feared that the floodwaters carried in potential contaminants and toxins, which it took the EPA weeks to properly assess. There’s also widespread concern about an influx of mosquitos carrying deadly viruses.
“Even if you were unharmed and your house was okay, living an experience like this is emotionally traumatizing,” as one Florida-based therapist, Janera Echevarría, tells NBC News. “In one way or another, after a disaster—manmade or natural—it is expected that people will suffer some kind of post-traumatic stress.”
In the United States, medical marijuana is increasingly being used as an effective treatment option for PTSD. More studies need to be done, which will depend on loosening federal research dollars by rescheduling cannabis, but droves of anecdotal evidence demonstrate that medical marijuana is helping countless Americans—most notably the Veteran community—treat PTSD. Studies that have been done support this anecdotal evidence.
A 2017 study that some have called “the most comprehensive research review ever done on the topic” of medical marijuana and mental health found that “Preliminary evidence suggests that CTP [cannabis for therapeutic purposes] may have potential for the treatment of PTSD, and as a substitute for problematic use of other substances.”
In Puerto Rico, medical marijuana is legal and PTSD is one of the approved medical conditions treatable with cannabis. But marijuana can’t be much help if residents have no way of accessing it.
“You don’t have a car anymore your car flooded, and you need to get to the dispensary, and you don’t have transportation, and maybe you lost your job because your office is flooded as well! This is the current situation in Puerto Rico” Says Mimi Perez, a representative and board member for the Puerto Rico Medical Cannabis Association.
Some of the island’s major growing facilities were also destroyed in the hurricane, and most dispensaries temporarily shut down. While the majority of which have since reopened, medical marijuana patients went weeks without access to any of the island’s 29 dispensaries, save four. The government of Puerto Rico also tweaked their medical marijuana policies: normally, patients are assigned a single dispensary they’re allowed to purchase marijuana from, but until two weeks after the state of emergency ends, all clinics are now accepting patients with a license.
However, due to marijuana’s status as a federally recognized Schedule I drug, the marijuana industry and its patients are excluded from the aid dollars that are helping to rebuild other medical industries, like pharmaceutical drugs.
As Perez tells me, Puerto Rico “will get hundreds of millions of dollars of aid for all these other pharmaceutical patients in all these other programs, and we could not find one aid program to assist our medical marijuana program patients.” It’s a devastating blow for a young industry that some believe will help jumpstart Puerto Rico’s economy after 10 years of economic depression and declining employment rates.
Marijuana’s Schedule I status prevents businesses and patients from receiving aid.
If the federal government rescheduled marijuana to reflect the legislative stances made by more than 30 U.S. states and territories, Puerto Rico’s medical marijuana industry would receive aid to help its recovery. But the real losers, according to Perez, are Puerto Rico’s medical patients—like those suffering from PTSD.
“Not only was the industry impacted, but the patients can no longer afford their medicine. And they don’t have any aid for that.” Perez tells me. “They lost their house, they lost their ceiling or they got flooded, or they lost their food, and they have the same challenges as any other patient of any other program.”
For those suffering from PTSD from a hurricane, even banal weather events are triggers. The rain causes flashbacks of their homes flooding. The wind recalls the sound of neighbors, friends and family members’ screams. But without rolling back the restrictions on the medical marijuana industry caused by federal prohibition, many of those suffering from this distressing condition will be left without a way to access safe treatment options.
Perez tells me that the PRMCA is trying to fill the gap left by a lack of federal aid by becoming “the first responders of the industry” both for patients struggling to obtain medication, and for Puerto Ricans still working through the process of obtaining their medical marijuana license.
“Even today, after Hurricane Maria, nobody is giving up,” Perez tells me about workers in the medical marijuana industry. “They’re still there, going to get gas and coming back and turning on their generators and serving their patients. That only is a sign. Because any unhealthy business would have taken this opportunity just to back out and leave.”
Perez is confident that the marijuana industry will continue to emerge as a significant economic force in Puerto Rico, despite the setbacks. But in the meantime, the government’s refusal to change its stance on marijuana’s scheduling will have devastating human consequences. Already, suicides have dramatically increased since the storm—a staggering 32 have already been counted since Hurricane Maria made landfall. For those suffering from severe post-disaster depression, easy and affordable access to medication is paramount. The marijuana industry’s resilience is not enough on its own to make this possible. But a federal commitment to rescheduling marijuana might be.
You can donate to the PRMCA’s program to help victims of Hurricane Maria here.