Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder certainly don’t have it easy upon return home. Just when one war ends, a battle of a different kind begins. This one can last an entire lifetime. There aren’t many options that provide consistent, effective relief for PTSD. Fortunately, medical marijuana might provide some lasting moments of peace to former service members. In this segment of our Marijuana and PTSD series is all about veterans.
Veterans turning to cannabis
Marijuana use in the United States has been rising significantly over the past decade. Use among the veteran population is no exception. According to VA.gov, the number of veterans diagnosed with cannabis use disorder has almost doubled over the past 12 years. Back in 2002, only 13% of veterans with substance abuse disorders were categorized as cannabis abusers. In 2014, that number jumped to 22.7%.
Let’s take a second to talk about marijuana abuse. In the medical community, a person develops “cannabis use disorder” when the consuming the herb is thought to interfere with their ability to perform everyday tasks. The patient must also exhibit a strong desire to use the herb routinely, even when it’s not appropriate.
Obviously, the notion of “cannabis abuse” is very controversial among the medical marijuana community. On one hand, our culture has developed a kind of fear about things that have not been subjected to the standard scientific process. We also associate optimal health with a certain level of purity. You’re often not considered “healthy” if you consume any form of intoxicating substance. This is at the sacrifice of other unmeasurable benefits like peace of mind and social bonding.
On the other hand, marijuana does interact heavily with the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. These are the brain regions associated with addiction. It’s entirely possible to become a little too dependent on cannabis rather than focus on holistic healing.
There is no doubt that many patients have reported significant life improvements from medical marijuana. If you have a condition like PTSD, how you experience the active components of the plant may be different from the way a “healthy” person would.
Regardless of the debate, more and more veterans are using the herb to cope with post-traumatic stress. With good reason, too. As we outlined on our second segment in this series, Marijuana and PTSD: The Science, the endocannabinoid system is thought to play a major role in the development of the condition. The endocannabinoid system is the network that compounds like THC and CBD interact with inside the body.
Fortunately for many, answers about medical marijuana’s efficacy in PTSD treatment are right around the corner. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has finally given the go-ahead for a clinical study of medical marijuana in veterans with PTSD. The study was just awarded a $2 million grant by the state of Colorado.
The newfound understanding of the role of the endocannabinoid system coupled with the wealth of anecdotal reports from cannabis-using veterans has spurred this investigation. The research will be conducted by the well-known psychedelic research group MAPS.
The study includes 76 veterans in Arizona and Maryland. The participants will be tested with four different types of medical marijuana. It took more than a year for MAPS to get DEA approval for the research. The study will be conducted with cannabis smoked from pipes. An interesting decision from a health perspective, but one that perhaps matches the most common way of consuming the herb.
Lead researcher, Marcel Bonn-Miller told reporters:
“Without Colorado’s initiative in setting aside money for this, this work couldn’t get done. The biggest stumbling block or barrier to this research is funding, more so than federal regulations or red tape.”
We may not see the results from this trial for another three years. But, hopefully, the approval of this particular study will open the doors to research with other medical conditions in the future.
Pros and cons of medical cannabis
Like any medication, there are pros and cons to medical marijuana. The herb also doesn’t work for everyone. Below are a few abbreviated pros and cons of medical cannabis treatment. It’s important to note that this list is far from complete. Many controversial impacts and potential benefits are not included.
In some instances, THC may actually increase agitation or cause undesirable side effects like paranoia. Whether this happens consistently in those with PTSD is unknown at this time. Another risk is becoming dependent. Medically speaking, dependence is when you cannot sleep or feel excess irritation unless you use the herb.
For the record, the pharmaceutical drugs often prescribed for PTSD also cause dependence. Sleeping pills like Ambien and benzodiazepines like Klonopin, Ativan, and Xanax are well-known to cause tolerance and dependence. This means that you’ll need more and more of the drug to see effects. These drugs are generally considered safe treatment options for PTSD.
When medical marijuana is used responsibly and coupled with trauma-focused therapy, it may be able to mitigate some of the worst symptoms of PTSD. Though, we’ll know a lot more about the validity of these claims once MAPS is through with the trials.
The disorder is considered extremely hard to treat with traditional pharmaceutical medicine. Many people are unresponsive to antidepressants and benzodiazepines, which do little to combat night terrors associated with the condition.
In an interview with CBS news, former Marine Mike Whiter told reporters:
“I went from being an anxious mess to numbing myself with pills they were giving me. Cannabis helped me get out of this hole I was in. I started to talk to people and get over my social anxiety.”
An anecdotal account
Some excellent reporting from Sam Laird from Mashable tells the story of Jake Scallan. Scallan is now a 28-year-old Iraq war veteran. He manned a gunner’s turret during regular security patrols around his base. Yet, by 2011 he developed post-traumatic stress disorder which led to his medical retirement.
Back in 2009, Scallan was laying on a cot in a military hospital when emergency struck. Another turret gunner was wheeled in, but this man was missing part of his face. He had bit hit with an improvised explosive device and died within minutes.
Traumas like these are all-too-common for those in service, and the chaos that Scallan experienced in Iraq had a deep and tormenting impact. When he returned home, he experienced panic attacks, irritability, and anger.
To treat his disorder, he was prescribed an antipsychotic, an antidepressant, a benzodiazepine, and additional opioids for pain. Scanlan’s longtime girlfriend stated that he was “totally empty, just vacant” while he was taking these medications. So, Scallan turned to marijuana.
While he had never liked it much before his deployment, trying it after developing PTSD was different. Mashable’s Laird explains:
“Scallion found cannabis offered relief from his PTSD without leaving him completely vegetated. He was happier and more engaged. He and Cobarrudia [his girlfriend] could still go on a hike after he medicated, instead of having to watch him stare half-sedated out the window. He felt social again.
After about a year of smoking pot daily, Scallan was able to stop taking the opiates, Zoloft, and Klonopin. He was down to 150mg of Seroquel each night to sleep. Then he ditched that as well.” – Laird
Now, Scallion works with a team of other veterans and gives marijuana away for free to service members. He’s a part of the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA). The SCVA has been around since 2010 and their goal is to help former service members find much-needed relief. The full story about the SCVA deserves a read and can be found here.
All in all, our veterans have risked their emotional and physical selves in service to our country. For this, they deserve gratitude. They also deserve safe and effective medicines when they return home. Here’s hoping that cannabis will prove to be a working alternative for those battling PTSD long after they return from war.
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