Can Smoking Pot Really Help America's Veterans Cope With PTSD?

Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:44:51 PDT

Medical marijuana advocates in Arizona cheered the state’s decision last week to allow people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder to use pot to cope, opening the door for thousands of military veterans to use the drug to self-medicate.

The decision, though largely celebrated, was in some ways a curious one. Even though marijuana has shown promise as a treatment for PTSD, there have been no rigorous clinical trials on humans. The week before Department of Health Services Director Will Humble's decision to allow its use, University of Arizona assistant professor Dr. Sue Sisley, the only researcher in America with federal authorization to study the effect of marijuana as a treatment for PTSD, was fired from her position and her research put on hold.

Despite marijuana’s promise, are we doing veterans a disservice by encouraging them to self-medicate before standardized treatment protocols have been established? Before we even know concretely if this palliative treatment can help soothe away their troubles?

After all, substance abuse is often a major problem for veterans who take painkillers to cope with combat injuries and continue to use them once the pain abates—let alone those with PTSD. About 12 percent of the homeless population in America are veterans, and 70 percent of those suffer from some form of substance abuse. Thirty percent of the Army's suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009 involved drug or alcohol abuse. Forty percent of non-fatal suicide attempts from 2005 to 2009 were drug or alcohol related.

Though marijuana isn’t potent enough to kill on its own, and addiction issues are much less common, it's unclear if unsupervised medical marijuana use could contribute to the larger problems veterans face.

Rigorous scientific research into marijuana-related PTSD treatments is essential for the health of veterans, Mason Tvert, director of communications for advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, told TakePart.

“For decades, the federal government has been doing veterans a disservice by blocking these studies,” Tvert said.

He is adamant, however, that while that research is being done, vets should not be denied access to marijuana to self-medicate.

“Marijuana is a nontoxic substance that is relatively benign. It should be viewed in the same light as aspirin. It would be absolutely beneficial to have better research. But to let vets die because the government is dragging isn’t the answer either,” Tvert said.

Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, generally agrees with Tvert—but he has concerns. Duckworth has worked with patients suffering from PTSD, and he told TakePart that while marijuana shows promise, the effects of the drug are not always benign.

“I have had people tell me that marijuana helps their post-traumatic stress,” he said. “However, I have also seen people make their psychosis worse.”

One problem is that PTSD is still largely a mystery to scientists.

“Why is it that if three soldiers witness the same incident in Afghanistan, two may be absolutely fine and the third may suffer from PTSD?” Duckworth said. “Does it have to do with age? Past trauma? Is it because they are left-handed? We still don’t have these answers.”

Throwing marijuana into that equation is still essentially a shot in the dark.

“This is an area where more research is required,” said Duckworth. “I’d be cautious but not punitive for my patients who want to go down this road. We know psychotherapy and medication work most of the time. Until the literature on marijuana is out there, I would recommend trying other things with more scientific history.”

Writing the aforementioned literature is on hold because of Sisley's firing, but Brad Burge, director of communication for the nonprofit that oversaw her PTSD study before she was fired, downplays concern over potentially deleterious effects of medical marijuana in vets with PTSD.

“Given what we know about safety of marijuana, which is a lot, giving veterans some form of access to the drug is an advance from prohibiting it entirely,” Burge said. “However, the medical marijuana policies enabling vets access would be safer and better if research were allowed to continue.”

Sisley is appealing her termination, which would allow her to continue her work. If that effort fails, Burge says, she will have to reapply with the federal government to conduct her study elsewhere. Applying for those funds again doesn't guarantee success—kind of like vets using pot to cope with PTSD.

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Original article from TakePart