With both Armistice Day and Veterans Day falling on November 11, it’s an appropriate time to turn our attention to those who have served in the armed forces, many of whom have been left with debilitating physical and psychological wounds. Fortunately, cannabis is well known to help with chronic pain and is also widely reported to lessen the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, which is why an ever-increasing number of veterans are now turning to the plant for relief.
Unfortunately, research into the effects of marijuana on PTSD and other associated psychological disorders is still a little fragmented, with several small-scale studies having been published but no proper clinical trials conducted. As evidence for the benefits of cannabis mounts, however, calls for more in-depth studies into the use of marijuana to treat PTSD are becoming louder by the day.
How Are Veterans Currently Using Cannabis?
Due to the psychological scars of war, many veterans regularly attend psychiatric clinics for both counselling and medication. Sadly, many of the pills that are prescribed to these patients are ineffective, and can also produce some nasty side-effects. For this reason, numerous surveys of veterans attending such clinics have revealed a growing tendency to self-medicate with cannabis.
For example, a study that was published in 2018 found that patients at a Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facility in the US are increasingly using marijuana to treat anxiety, stress, PTSD, pain, depression and insomnia[i]. Significantly, those reporting the greatest trouble sleeping were found to be the most likely to use cannabis.
These findings are very much in line with those of a separate study involving 790 US veterans that was published two years earlier. The majority of respondents reported using marijuana to treat PTSD symptoms and to relieve tension, indicating that many now prefer cannabis to other psychiatric medications[ii].
How Effective Is Cannabis?
While the efficacy of marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain is well documented, the impact of certain cannabinoids on PTSD and other emotional disorders is still the subject of some debate. An increasing number of cases have been reported in the scientific literature over the past decade or so, with one study that appeared in 2012 explaining how a young man with PTSD had managed to successfully treat his panic attacks and flashbacks by smoking hashish. The authors of this particular study were among the first to suggest that cannabinoid signalling in the brain’s emotional centres – such as the amygdala – may have an influence on the neurological and behavioural responses to stress[iii].
At that time, New Mexico was the only American state offering medical cannabis treatment for PTSD. An analysis of the success of this programme was published in 2014, with results showing that symptom improvement was 75 percent higher among patients who received cannabis than those who did not[iv].
These early studies inspired an intensification of research into the matter over the following years, with two significant papers being published in 2019. The first of these examined the efficacy of oral cannabidiol (CBD), in conjunction with psychotherapy, at treating PTSD. After eight weeks of treatment, 91 percent of patients involved in the study experienced a decrease in symptom severity, with PTSD scores falling by an average of 28 percent[v].
“CBD also appeared to offer relief in a subset of patients who reported frequent nightmares as a symptom of their PTSD,” explain the study authors.
The second significant study to be published last year analysed data from 24,000 respondents to a national mental health survey in Canada. Results showed that PTSD sufferers who didn’t use cannabis were seven times more likely to have a major depressive episode, and five times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, than those who did use marijuana to treat the disorder[vi].
Larger studies into the efficacy of cannabis to treat PTSD are currently in the pipeline, although it is likely to be a while before these are completed. In spite of this, the number of veterans using cannabis products to treat their symptoms continues to grow. That being the case, the research really can’t come quickly enough.
[i] Metrik J, Bassett SS, Aston ER, Jackson KM, Borsari B. Medicinal versus recreational cannabis use among returning veterans. Translational issues in psychological science. 2018 Mar;4(1):6. – https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Ftps0000133
[ii] Grant S, Pedersen ER, Neighbors C. Associations of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms with marijuana and synthetic cannabis use among young adult US Veterans: a pilot investigation. Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs. 2016 May;77(3):509-14. – https://www.jsad.com/doi/abs/10.15288/jsad.2016.77.509?journalCode=jsad
[iii] Passie T, Emrich HM, Karst M, Brandt SD, Halpern JH. Mitigation of post‐traumatic stress symptoms by Cannabis resin: A review of the clinical and neurobiological evidence. Drug testing and analysis. 2012 Jul;4(7-8):649-59. – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/dta.1377
[iv] Greer GR, Grob CS, Halberstadt AL. PTSD symptom reports of patients evaluated for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2014 Jan 1;46(1):73-7. – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.2013.873843
[v] Elms L, Shannon S, Hughes S, Lewis N. Cannabidiol in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a case series. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2019 Apr 1;25(4):392-7. – https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/acm.2018.0437
[vi] Lake S, Kerr T, Buxton J, Walsh Z, Marshall BD, Wood E, Milloy MJ. Does cannabis use modify the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on severe depression and suicidal ideation? Evidence from a population-based cross-sectional study of Canadians. Journal of psychopharmacology. 2020 Feb;34(2):181-8. – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269881119882806?journalCode=jopa