Medical marijuana helps war veterans overcome post-traumatic stress

In Feature Stories, PTSD by Dr. Tim Sandle, Ph.D.

Researchers in Israel discovered marijuana can be beneficial treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions. PTSD sufferers using marijuana reported fewer flashbacks, better sleep and clearer thinking.

Dr. Yehuda Baruch, the head of the psychiatric hospital “Abarbanel” in Bat Yam, helped conduct the study and said he selected marijuana for the PTSD research because of its effect on the brain.

“Since it is known that cannabis interferes with memory by erosion of the connection between affect and content we thought that this side effect will be beneficial in PTSD,” said Baruch, who’s also the Israeli Health Ministry’s point of contact for issuing medicinal marijuana prescriptions.

PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that arises after a person has been subject to major trauma; this leads to either a physical or psychological condition. PTSD affects many former soldiers, including those returning from tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. Several medics have argued marijuana is an effective treatment for veterans suffering the effects of PTSD.

The use of medical marijuana to help alleviate PTSD is not yet widespread due to the fact it’s not yet legal in many parts of the world. While PTSD-marijuana research is in its infancy, Israel is a key science hub for in-depth studies.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. Photo courtesy  United States Department of Health and Human Services

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. Photo courtesy United States Department of Health and Human Services

Baruch said when medical marijuana has been tested on traumatized Israeli army veterans the results of the pilot study have been promising. This success was assessed by testing veterans before and after marijuana use, using the internationally recognized CAPS test (Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale).

The improvement in the condition of the veterans was soon noticeable: fewer flash-backs, fewer nightmares, better sleep and clearer thinking.

“Marijuana helps,” said military veteran Jason Roberts who undertook a mission in Afghanistan and uses marijuana to help ease his suffering from PTSD. “I shake less. Feel a bit clearer for a time. There’s a slow change.”

While Roberts was not part in the Israeli testing, he says he couldn’t get through the day without marijuana.

The importance of marijuana to alleviate PTSD rests with a compound called THC (an abbreviation for tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient of marijuana which is responsible for its psychoactive effects). Those in favour of the use of medical marijuana argue that THC is neuroprotective, which means that it can protect the brain from damage.

Despite the apparent benefits there are some risks involved in taking marijuana, particularly for those affected by PTSD. Baruch describes these as a “risk of psychosis and schizophrenia especially in young adults” as well as the possibility of panic attacks. Nonetheless, these side effects are relatively mild as compared with many other prescription drugs.

Based on the results achieved so far, Baruch’s view is that governments should allow the use of medical marijuana for PTSD sufferers as a way of overcoming their problems. At the same time Baruch acknowledges that users should be “under strict surveillance because these patients have a tendency to drug abuse” and that strict monitoring of the users’ health should be carried out.

While the use of medical marijuana to help alleviate PTSD remains at the early stages, Baruch sees immense potential in this research. Baruch’s next step is to run a stringent double-blind trial where neither the subject nor the researcher know which sufferers of PTSD have been given marijuana.

In the first wave of studies the veterans knew that there were being given marijuana and that the effects would be monitored. With this first study there was a risk the patients could become biased by thinking they had to act in a certain way. The second study intends to avoid this issue.

The new research on PTSD undertaken by Baruch and his colleagues may well add a new dimension for therapeutic cannabis, which has already been proven to help alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

Feature image courtesy hookbrother