Could the next big use of legal marijuana be the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among our military veterans?
PTSD is a condition that plagues one in three former service members; it’s also a condition that’s notoriously difficult to treat.
The Lasting Effects of War
Experts say up to 20 percent of the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, according to 2012 stats from the US Dept. of Veteran Affairs (VA), an average of 22 former members of the Armed Forces commit suicide every day.
Traditionally, doctors have prescribed pharmaceutical antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil for the treatment of PTSD. Unfortunately, these drugs are often ineffective and cause unwanted side effects. However, emerging research suggests that medical marijuana could be a more effective treatment with fewer side effects.
“One way of thinking about PTSD is an over-activation of the fear system that can’t be inhibited, can’t be normally modulated,” Dr. Kerry Ressler of Emory University told NPR in 2013. To put it more simply, a brain with PTSD is stuck in overdrive.
Research Favors Treatment with Marijuana
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that PTSD patients who used cannabis reported a 75 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms. Researchers concluded: Cannabis is associated with reductions in PTSD symptoms in some patients, and prospective, placebo-controlled study is needed to determine efficacy of cannabis and its constituents in treating PTSD.
Marijuana research in the US has been obstructed by federal law, which still technically classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. However, as marijuana laws are changing across the country, more doors have opened for scientists to push forward with research in to pot for PTSD treatment.
One of the first major studies was recently funded by a $2 million-grant from Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council and headed by Arizona psychiatrist Sue Sisley, who has been treating patients with PTSD for two decades.
“The hypothesis is that we think marijuana will reduce or ease the symptoms of PTSD in a dose-dependent manner,” she said. “We also believe CBD-rich strains of marijuana may be most optimal for treating PTSD.”
The Future of PTSD Therapy
Compared to pharmaceuticals, which treat more specific PTSD symptoms, marijuana on its own seems to help patients cope with a complex range of symptoms. “There is a unique neural pathway between all of those structures [in the brain] that deals with fear and memory,” Sisley explains. “The thinking is there may be excessive firing within those structures in patients that have PTSD. So the calming effect [of marijuana] may reduce the neuronal firing in those structures.”
Sisley adds that the drug allows patients to not fixate on negative memories, without erasing these memories entirely.
This doesn’t mean marijuana is necessarily a cure-all. Sisley is aware that marijuana, like any drug, could have negative side effects, and says more research is needed into potential harms as well as benefits. “There is no doubt that marijuana is a drug,” she says. “It has benefits, risks and side effects. Anybody who tells you marijuana has no side effects, well that’s not true. We are trying to do a study where both efficacy and benefits are addressed.”
Additional Reading: 5 Surprising Medical Marijuana Advocates
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