Veterans who struggle with PTSD and pain have some new hope on the horizon. On March 14, the Health and Human Services Department granted approval for the purchase of research grade marijuana to Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), in order to study the plant's effectiveness at treating PTSD, which has devastated the lives of so many veterans.
The study would provide the most reputable evidence to date of the plants efficacy. Until now research had consisted of animal studies and anecdotal evidence. The study would consist of 70 participants.The approval came as a surprise to MAPS, the study's sponsor. In what has been an uphill battle for the group, HHS suddenly reversed its long held position against marijuana research and agreed to allow MAPS to purchase enough marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA), the only federal provider of the plant, to conduct a small, triple-blind study.
The study will attempt to determine how effective marijuana is at treating PTSD symptoms in those who have tried other medications and methods without finding relief. MAPS is running a study researching the effectiveness of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, on PTSD as well.
"Back while I was still in college and working summers as a tech in a pharmaceutical laboratory, we were doing some preliminary research on the cardiovascular effects of THC, obtained in pure, 500mg bottles from NIMH," said Dr. David Reiss, M.D., one of the early researchers of medical marijuana. "We were looking at whether THC might be a useful adjunct to some of the antihypertensive drugs that were being used at the time."
Reiss currently works with the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont, within the Uniformed Services Program which provides treatment for PTSD and related disorders to military, law enforcement personnel, and first responders:
"Using high doses of THC, the data we obtained regarding cardiovascular effects was interesting – but the research ended when THC was no longer legally available for experimentation. At the same time, I found that at the relatively high doses that we were using, about 90% of the rats I was 'turning on' would become calm, mellow, seemingly quite content, but 10% would appear agitated, irritable, and probably hallucinating. In retrospect, those doses were very high relative to typical 1960s-1970s street marijuana, but may not actually be too far above the potency of marijuana currently available."
Reiss points to one of the issues that persists in the study of marijuana as medicine: potency standardization of the plants. Even if all the stars align and medicinal marijuana becomes widely available, there is a huge difference among the strains of plants.
"Personally, based on research I have done, studies I have read, and the experiences reported to me by patients, I have little doubt that agents such as marijuana, MDMA and Ketamine can have potential positive therapeutic usages, quite possibly with low toxicity if used carefully, and certainly deserve additional objective research," he said.
But Reiss also has some reservations about the use of the marijuana or MDMA found on the street for treating PTSD.
"While I do not doubt that patients obtain some (or even significant) subjective relief, my personal observations are that the use of uncontrolled agents have significant negative effects on cognition, motivation, and productive functioning," he commented. "Further, long-term side effects are not well understood."
All the more reason for further research, according to MAPS.While the marijuana study still has some hurdles to overcome, this move marks a historic
shift, one that has taken more than 20 years, according to its founder.
"When it comes to researching the medical potential of Schedule I drugs," said MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D., "privately-funded medical marijuana drug development research has been the last domino to fall. We are working to expand the options doctors have to treat their patients, but we need the support of our federal agencies."
The study is set to take place at the University of Arizona under the leadership of psychiatrist Dr. Sue Sisley, the study’s principal investigator, and was to receive $250,000 in funding from Arizona's medical marijuana program, almost one-third of the study's total cost. However, the bill to provide the funds, HB 2333, was killed by Arizona State Senator Kimberly Yee (R-Phoenix) when she refused to add the bill to the committee's agenda before the required deadline.
To date, the study still requires $885,000 in funding in order to commence.
Perhaps one of the largest hurdles that veterans who suffer from severe PTSD are facing are the legal hurdles. Currently, there are 21 states -- plus the District of Columbia -- that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain, but only 8 states list PTSD as a qualifying condition. The rules vary by state, forcing many veterans to seek out marijuana illegally when other treatment fails.
On top of this, VA doctors are prohibited from prescribing marijuana. However, veterans are allowed to use it in states where it is legal at their own expense without facing penalties from the VA.
While the effectiveness of marijuana on PTSD symptoms has not yet been established, those who have tried it say that it's a godsend when all else fails. With more than 22 veterans committing suicide everyday when they can no longer cope with the horrors and pain of war, the use of marijuana for PTSD and pain could literally be a matter of life and death to those who have nowhere else to turn.
No photo credit attributed