Why American Veterans Aren't Allowed to Treat Their PTSD With Cannabis

byPerry Solomon, MD4 minutes

One of the most dangerous conditions currently facing American war veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD affects 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, 11 percent of Afghanistan war veterans and 20 percent of Iraq War veterans, and it can have devastating repercussions that are commonly treated with a combination of narcotics and therapy. Unfortunately, narcotics have many side effects, and many veterans are looking for safer treatment options. In doing so, many have turned to marijuana. While marijuana is often more efficient at managing PTSD and associated conditions than a veteran's typical cocktail of narcotics and opioids, many veterans don't have access to marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD arises after a person experiences a traumatic event. While PTSD isn't limited to veterans, the occurrence rates in post-war veterans are higher than those in the civilian population. When an individual experiences a traumatic or life-threatening event, the mind and body go into shock, creating severe symptoms. These include night terrors, flashbacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, irritability, anger, withdrawal and extreme emotional reactions, such as panic attacks and irrational fear.

How Is PTSD Treated?

While PTSD is common (the National Center for PTSD estimates that 7-8% of civilians are affected), it's tough to treat. Because PTSD presents a complex set of symptoms, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has developed a varied treatment plan that includes group and private therapy sessions and doses of opiates, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines. Unfortunately, this cocktail comes with side effects. These side effects include difficulty sleeping, intense anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and actions. Because of this, marijuana is being evaluated as an alternative option with fewer adverse effects.

Why Is Marijuana a Safer Option?

Marijuana is an effective treatment option for everything from[anxiety to sleep disorders, and recent scientific evidence is proving that marijuana is also an effective treatment for PTSD. According to a 2014 study conducted in New Mexico and published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, cannabis can reduce the symptoms of PTSD in affected veterans by 75 percent. This is because marijuana produces an effect known as "memory extinction," which diminishes traumatic memories. Other researchers, such as Dr. Suzanne Sisley (a PTSD specialist), have been emboldened by past study results and are currently spearheading new cannabis studies in states that have legalized marijuana.

While these studies are promising, proving marijuana's effectiveness in PTSD treatment is only half the battle. Up until very recently, veterans who expressed an interest in marijuana for PTSD treatment risked losing their other prescription drugs, because marijuana, as a Schedule I drug, violates the Opioid Pain Care Agreement. Even after medical marijuana was legal in many states, VA doctors were routinely discouraged from talking about the treatment option with their patients due to the threat of having their licenses revoked or facing legal charges.

To answer the cry from veterans for medical marijuana and fill the information and care gaps, independent advocacy groups such as Veterans for Medical Marijuana (founded by an Air Force veteran) began to spring up around the country. These independent groups worked tirelessly to rally against the VA's strict cannabis policy and, in time, they brought about change. In 2011, however, the VA began to allow some breathing room for medical marijuana use in response to intense pressure from the veteran community. In addition to prohibiting doctors from revoking a patient's access to prescription drugs due to medical marijuana use, the new VA measures also laid out monitoring programs for medical marijuana access.

While it remains difficult for veterans in states where medical marijuana is not legal to access life-changing, cannabis-centric PTSD treatment, many veterans are hopeful that future research and changing attitudes about medical marijuana can provide easier access to this life-changing drug.