Last updated: May 25, 2020
Federal permission to test marijuana’s effectiveness as a PTSD treatment has been a long sought after step since initial approval was granted in March 2014. Scientific research into pot’s effects on health and wellness should finally be able to replace anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking.
As shown by a recent lawsuit instituted by veterans in Colorado when the state and the Colorado Board of Health refused to legalize marijuana as a treatment for mental health issues, the demand for a carefully controlled study of marijuana’s possible psychotropic and health benefits has continued to gain momentum. A growing number of veterans—now an estimated 20 percent (up from 12 percent in the Gulf War and 15 percent in the Vietnam War)—return from battlefield deployments only to encounter a new battle in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates among these vets is 50 percent higher than it is in civilian sufferers.
For some time a wide variety of pot legalization advocates have theorized about the beneficial effects marijuana might offer patients suffering from many of the symptoms of PTSD—anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and sleep deprivation, for example. Some in the medical community say they have reason to believe cannabis would help these sufferers by calming areas of the brain associated with overstimulation and anxiety. An article appearing on USAMDT of Atlanta’s blog explores whether the Veterans Administration is carefully considering such alternatives to opioid prescription painkillers. Many others maintain the status quo that says there are no actual legitimate medical benefits to the drug.
But before the recent federal approval of the MAPS study, conducting exacting medical research was severely restricted, despite growing calls for such research from both medical and psychiatric communities. Exploration of marijuana’s possible medical uses was limited by the fact that the federal government classifies pot as a Substance 1 drug.
Nevertheless, in November of 1999, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) proposed a placebo-controlled, triple-blind study to determine whether inhaled marijuana would be safe and effective as a treatment for veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. The study would involve 76 vets and five different potencies of the drug, including a placebo. Unlike other studies, this one would be the first “whole-plant” study, using the actual plant, rather than an extract in pill or liquid form.
Despite funding by a $2.156 million grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the MAPS study has encountered numerous delays, some of them due to the need to amend and resubmit study protocol to meet government concerns, like how the data is collected, how well the guidelines are followed and if pot used in the study might be used elsewhere. Once the revised protocol design was reviewed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Public Health Service (PHS) and approved by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, MAPS was authorized to requisition the four study strains of marijuana from NIDA.
This past April, NIDA notified researchers that it’s ready to supply the requested strains, pending DEA approval. Once that approval is obtained—and researches expect that to happen soon—and MAPS obtains the federal license necessary to buy the product, researchers will be ready to conduct all three phases of the study necessary to satisfy FDA requirements.
The tests do not have a start date, but indications are that day isn’t far off. Meanwhile, the American Medical Association has called on the federal government to change marijuana’s classification as a Substance 1 drug, in order to ease restrictions on medical research and allow doctors in states where pot has already been legalized for medical use to prescribe it directly—rather than simply recommend patients obtain it from an authorized dispensary.
If the federal government does approve marijuana as a treatment for PTSD it would signal a paradigm shift. The federal government will then have to reconsider marijuana’s scheduling classification, as it will then have a medical use. This could lead to legalization measures on a national scale.