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Medical Cannabis in the Treatment for Veterans with PTSD

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can linger for months or even years after a traumatic event. At least 20 percent of all military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer symptoms of PTSD. According to a recent study, 4 out of 5 Vietnam-era veterans report PTSD symptoms more than a quarter of a century later. Symptoms can include reliving the trauma through flashbacks or dreams, avoiding any reminders of the event, feeling over-aroused or numb, or developing negative beliefs about people and the world in general.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

For veterans serving during combat, the experience of trauma is all too common and compounded in the event of an injury. Many veterans experience both extreme physical trauma and mild to major traumatic brain injury (TBI), resulting in symptoms such as cognitive and personality changes. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are not uncommon. Returning home, resuming family life, and adapting into the workplace presents new and often overwhelming challenges for PTSD sufferers. A variety of these factors leave too many veterans homeless, without an income, and facing an increased risk of suicide.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 50 percent of those with symptoms of PTSD never seek treatment. Those who do typically access services through local offices of the Veterans Administration, which offers standard PTSD treatment in the form of medication and therapy. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids such as Ativan, Valium, Zoloft, or Paxil cause severe side effects, some of which mimic the symptoms of PTSD. A study reported in Pharmacy and Therapeutics states that conventional drug treatments for PTSD are effective in about 60 percent of patients, and achieve complete remission of symptoms in only 20 to 30 percent of cases.

Can cannabis be a safer treatment for those suffering from PTSD?

Recent studies of cannabis as a more effective and safer treatment offer hope. Compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) work on the brain’s stress regulation system, easing the experience of hyper arousal and agitation common to PTSD sufferers. According to New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, cannabis products provided long-term symptom relief in 75 percent of veterans who participated in an experimental study.

Unfortunately, veterans face considerable difficulties in gaining access to the marijuana products that could ease their symptoms. Federal law currently prohibits the use of marijuana for treating PTSD and severely limits research into the medical applications of cannabis overall. Because of this, Veterans Administration doctors and therapists are banned from prescribing marijuana, and may be prevented from even discussing it with patients.

A growing number of states have all either passed or expanded laws providing PTSD sufferers with access to medical cannabis. However, even in many states where medical marijuana is legal, that condition may not be covered, and due to constraints on the local Veterans Administration, the veteran may never be made aware that cannabis might be a treatment option.

Despite pressure from many veterans’ advocacy groups, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, considered to have a high potential for abuse with no recognized medical benefits. In order to pursue large-scale research into the potential treatment benefits of cannabis for soldiers with PTSD, the Trump administration needs to reclassify marijuana. Appeals by the American Legion have been met with resistance from the administration’s hard-liners, who are actively working to roll back existing laws in individual states and make it harder to pass new ones.

The Senate recently voted to place the Veterans Equal Access amendment into legislation for military spending and veterans’ affairs in 2018. The bill is intended to expand veterans’ access to medical marijuana nationwide, but still awaits passage in the House of Representatives, where it may stall. For now, our nation’s veterans continue to battle here at home, fighting for affordable and legal access to safe and effective relief from the symptoms of PTSD.


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