Cannabis to Treat PTSD Warrants Study

The VA and some veterans differ on use of cannabis to treat PTSD symptoms. Learn about the agency's position why further study of medical marijuana to address mental health disorders is warranted.

The use of cannabis to treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans remains a somewhat controversial topic. Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health professionals appear to be in firm opposition to this treatment while veterans themselves often say that using cannabis or marijuana is the only thing that seems to help them.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder which develops after a person experiences a disturbing or traumatic, event. PTSD can be caused by experiencing stressors such as combat, natural disaster, sexual assault or experiencing or witnessing a serious injury or violence. PTSD symptoms include:

  • Problems with anger management and impulse control
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and panic, nightmares and sleep disorders and flashbacks.
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Due to the stresses inherent in serving in the military and public safety, PTSD is common. PTSD symptoms can persist for many years, especially if left untreated. In addition, PTSD is a complex problem which is difficult to treat and recovery can take a very long time.

When a veteran’s PTSD is resistant to treatment, that veteran is more likely to look for an alternative way to treat his or her symptoms.

Marijuana and Substance Abuse

PTSD sufferers are statistically more likely to use cannabis than those who do not suffer from PTSD.  Prior to a recent push toward legalizing medical marijuana, cannabis has been considered a “self-medicating,” “coping” drug, like alcohol, and veterans who used the drug were considered by the VA to have a substance abuse disorder.

In fact, the VA’s stance on cannabis or marijuana use to treat PTSD continues to indicate that the safety and effectiveness of the treatment has not been properly evaluated using controlled studies.

VA Positioning

VA cites medical problems associated with the use of marijuana, such as chronic bronchitis and impairment in short-term memory, motor coordination and the ability to complete psychomotor tasks, such as driving. Furthermore, VA notes psychiatric problems associated with cannabis use, such as psychosis, impairment in cognitive ability, addiction and withdrawal (particularly difficult for PTSD sufferers), and quality of life problems including decreased educational attainment, poor life satisfaction and increased sexual risk-taking behavior.

VA acknowledges that these medical and psychiatric problems may not be caused by marijuana use. VA continues to indicate that support for the belief that cannabis can be used to treat PTSD is limited to anecdotal accounts from cannabis users who say the drug helps their symptoms.

The cannabis plant contains two main cannabinoids, THC and CBD.  In high doses, THC can actually induce paranoia and anxiety.  CBD, however, reduces the psychoactive effects of THC. So the balance of CBD and THC must come into consideration. Some studies indicate that people with PTSD have low levels of a cannabinoid compound found in all mammals, anandamide.  Low levels of anandamide result in impaired fear extinction, aversive memory consolidation and chronic anxiety. These studies have shown a potential of cannabinoids and cannabis as a help against the human body’s PTSD symptoms by supplying anandamide to the deficient.

What May Be Helpful for PTSD Treatment Warrants Further Study

VA is not wrong as to whether the effects of cannabis need more study. The first FDA approved study on cannabis for PTSD veterans was not approved until 2015, and studies that have been undertaken, thus far, are far from definitive. Like, other mental health disorders, PTSD can be treated but there is no actual cure. The medications and therapies currently prescribed are sometimes helpful, and sometimes not. Cannabis, too, is not a cure for PTSD.

If cannabis usage may bring relief to veterans from the symptoms of PTSD, however, it seems worth doing more studies to find out.

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