Veterans Distressed, Battling The Post-Trauma of War


It is estimated that there are more than three million US cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The condition is a serious trauma-related affliction that has been known by a variety of names over the years. The term ‘PTSD’ was coined in the 1970s after over eight hundred thousand US military Vietnam War veterans were suffering from symptoms directly related to traumatic wartime experiences. Most of the data surrounding PTSD is based on research studies involving war veterans, particularly those veterans who served in the Vietnam War.

Despite the overwhelming population of US veterans suffering from PTSD, there has been limited progress in terms of PTSD research and effective treatment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, scientists are still “attempting to identify what factors determine whether someone with PTSD will respond well to one type of intervention or another”. Ultimately, they hope to “develop more personalized, effective, and efficient treatments”.

Veterans seeking help with PTSD are increasingly turning to cannabis in a self-medicating effort to find relief from their symptoms. It’s no surprise considering the well-known attributes associated with ingesting cannabis, particularly as a remedy for stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, or pain. However, due to the federal government’s stance on marijuana and resistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration, scientists have had a difficult time conducting studies to determine whether or not cannabis can be an effective treatment for PTSD symptoms. So, the veterans suffering from PTSD have a legitimate question, does marijuana provide relief? Finding the means to provide an answer is proving more difficult than one might assume.

Doctors primarily recommend medical cannabis for relief from the symptoms of particular diseases. The most common conditions are neuropathic diseases, glaucoma, cancer, and treatment for symptoms of AIDS. Most of these diseases do not yet have a cure and marijuana is not intended as such. Of the current twenty-four legal medical marijuana states and DC, only eleven of those states explicitly list PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use. In terms of VA care, even in states where medical marijuana is legal, veterans can still be denied access if the particular state does not list PTSD as a qualifying condition. As a result, doctors are prescribing heavy antidepressant drugs with sometimes-serious consequences, namely addiction and suicide.

Most of the highest grossing drugs made by big pharmaceutical companies are prescribed with the same intention as medical cannabis, to provide relief rather than serve as a cure. Antidepressant medications are one of the most prescribed drugs by doctors to provide relief for symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression. These expensive synthetic opiates have proven to work well short-term but can also cause a wide range of unpleasant and even deadly side effects, including addiction, overdose, and long-term worsening of psychiatric symptoms.

Over time these legally prescribed drugs in combination with PTSD have created an epidemic of opioid dependency and an alarming rate of suicide among individuals in the US Veteran population. So, the question remains, is cannabis a better and more effective means of treatment for those affected by PTSD compared to what doctors are currently willing/able to prescribe?

Advocates in favor of veterans having access to medical cannabis find themselves in difficult catch-22. The policy makers are reluctant to approve medical cannabis for VA patients, citing lack of compelling scientific research demonstrating unequivocal positive results. There is a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence but not a lot of scientific evidence backing it up. The issue then becomes the extremely difficult process researchers must go through to conduct proper clinical studies. The federal policy towards cannabis is so strict that funding for research is seldom possible. In the view of the DEA, cannabis is considered a Schedule 1 substance on the same level as heroin and meth; in other words, it’s defined as a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”.

Despite the current system seemingly stacked against veterans seeking medical cannabis to help treat their PTSD, there has recently been a groundbreaking decision by the DEA.

For the first time the DEA has approved a study that will test how well ingesting cannabis of different strains and potencies treats PTSD. This Colorado-funded study is the first time the federal government has granted permission to use raw cannabis in a placebo-controlled clinical trial on PTSD. The study was originally submitted in 2010 along with fifty-seven other competing applications for state-funded research grants in Colorado.

Approximately six years of trying to push mud uphill and the science is finally moving forward; Marcel Bonn-Miller will oversee the entire study and serve as principal investigator. Dr. Sue Sisley and Dr. Ryan Vandrey will co-lead the group of researchers who plan to enroll seventy-six veterans split evenly between two study clinics, one site in Phoenix led by Dr. Sisley and the other led by Dr. Vandrey in Baltimore.

The study will start enrolling veterans immediately but they anticipate only accruing four to five veterans per month between the two study sites. Researchers expect the study to take nearly three years to complete. As PI, Bonn-Miller will be responsible for composing the report documenting the study’s findings. If the study timeline goes according to plan, the results will be published sometime in 2019.