Veteran’s quiet use of cannabis to self-medicate against the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder may soon move into mainstream medicine, thanks to the FDA and Public Health Service’s approval of the first study on marijuana use for PTSD.
Mary Lynn Mathre, MSN, RN, CARN, president of Patients Out of Time, a non-profit education forum on medical cannabis, can anecdotally attest to veterans using marijuana to alleviate anxiety, flashbacks and insomnia as far back as the Vietnam era.
“When I was doing community outreach work in the 70s, many veterans would tell horrific stories and have terrible problems with alcohol. The veterans using cannabis convinced others it was the only thing that would help,” she said.
The silence surrounding marijuana use for PTSD wasn’t just embarrassment. Marijuana is federally listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Doctors employed by the Department of Veteran Affairs can’t prescribe medical marijuana or complete forms for veterans to enroll in medical marijuana programs. Only in 2010 did the VA allow patients to use medical marijuana in states where it’s legal without jeopardizing their access to pain management programs.
Potential Marijuana Benefits
Proponents of marijuana for PTSD stress that the endocannabinoid system-with its chemicals found naturally only in cannabis- controls humans’ ability to eat, sleep, relax, protect and forget. In animal studies, those given an extra booster of endocannabidoids find it easier to forget.
“I will never say anything can cure PTSD,” said Mathre. “Once you’ve been scarred, you’ll always be haunted. But medical cannabis lessens the fight or flight response for these veterans. It only takes a wisecrack for someone with PTSD to go from normal to a rage. Cannibis make it manageable.”
Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported 22 veterans commit suicide every day and many believe the number is much higher. Medical marijuana activists claim cannabis can halt the suicide epidemic among veterans.
“I know for a fact that cannabis can cut the suicide rate in half or even more,” stated Mathre. “When the veterans with PTSD don’t want to go on the medicine provided by the government, they can’t live with themselves. They sometimes stage a gunfight so the police will have to kill them. Others suffer more mental disturbance on the drugs because there is no prescription for PTSD.”
By all appearances, the U.S. government is responding to the plight of veterans with PTSD by exploring the possible use of marijuana for the first time. Sue Sisley, MD, University of Arizona, circulated a proposal for a formal controlled test for marijuana among veterans with PTSD amongst various government offices. In 2011, she received consent from the FDA. Last March, she publicized an approval by the Public Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Sisley will examine 50 veterans with moderate to severe PTSD, using marijuana from the government farm at the University of Mississippi. The study participants will receive marijuana with five varying amounts of the active ingredient, THC – anywhere from the placebo of no THC to 12% THC. The study will also examine the differences between smoking the drug versus vaporizing it.
Sisley’s study could lead to the development of a prescription drug based on the whole marijuana plant, said Brad Burge, spokesman for Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which is funding the study.
“What that means is we have labels, lists of side effects, knowledge of different strains and how they have different effects,” he said.
Though the study represents a cultural shift on the part of the U.S. government, as there’s never been a study on marijuana for medical conditions, Burge acknowledged a considerable delay. The marijuana farm at University of Mississippi is only at the beginning stages of growing pot for the study and it may not be ready until late 2014.
Still, he said veterans are contacting the researchers “in droves” seeking to enroll. They’re not recruiting participants right now but public interest is almost unprecedented.