Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a group of symptoms that can linger for months or even years after someone experiences a traumatic event. Combat veterans face far higher rates of this disabling mental health condition than the population at large. At least 20 percent of all military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD, and a recent study1 notes that 4 out of 5 Vietnam-era veterans report having recently experienced PTSD symptoms more than a quarter of a century later.
Standard treatment for veterans with PTSD typically includes a variety of pharmaceutical medications and psychotherapy, but these often fail to relieve symptoms. Recent research suggests that cannabis may be more effective and safer than standard drug therapies, but veterans coping with PTSD face significant obstacles in getting access to the marijuana products that could ease their symptoms.
PTSD Hits Veterans Hard
Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone experiencing trauma from all kinds of difficult events. Feeling distress after a traumatic event is normal, and it generally resolves in a relatively short time. But for those with PTSD2, the symptoms triggered by trauma can continue indefinitely. Those symptoms can include reliving the trauma through flashbacks or dreams, avoiding any reminders of the event, feeling over-aroused or numb, or developing negative beliefs about people and the world in general.
For veterans serving during combat, the experience of trauma is all too common — and that experience is compounded in the event of an injury. Along with extreme physical trauma, many veterans experience mild to major traumatic brain injury (TBI)3, which can cause symptoms such as cognitive and personality changes. Because of these and other factors, many veterans also experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. PTSD can also hit female veterans especially hard since many experience sexual assault during deployment.
Returning home can pose new challenges for PTSD sufferers, too — and this condition contributes to the struggles many veterans face with resuming family life and settling into the workplace. For these reasons, many veterans are homeless and without an income, or face an increased risk of suicide.
Standard Treatments for PTSD May Not Be Effective
Getting treatment for PTSD and related conditions can be difficult for many veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates4 that as many as 50 percent of those with symptoms of PTSD never seek treatment. Those who do typically receive services through local offices of the Veterans Administration, which provides standard PTSD treatment in the form of medication and therapy.
Antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids such as Ativan, Valium, Zoloft, or Paxil are often prescribed to treat the varied symptoms of PTSD. But these medications can have severe side effects, some of which mimic the symptoms of PTSD — nervousness, agitation, or suicidal thoughts. What’s more, they may not even work. A recent study5 reported in Pharmacy and Therapeutics points out that conventional drug protocols for treating PTSD are effective in about 60 percent of cases, and these regimens achieve complete remission of symptoms in only 20 to 30 percent of patients.
Medical Marijuana: A Better Choice — If You Can Get It
Cannabis, better known as marijuana, may hold the key to successful long-term treatment of veterans’ PTSD symptoms. Compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) act on the brain’s stress regulation system to ease the experience of hyper arousal and agitation common to PTSD sufferers. According to recent research6 on New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program, cannabis products provided long-term symptom relief in 75 percent of veterans who took part in its experimental study.
New Mexico is among a growing number of states that allow the use of medical cannabis for treating PTSD. Over the past few months, Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, Florida, West Virginia, and North Dakota have all either passed or expanded laws providing PTSD sufferers with access to medical cannabis. But even in many states where medical marijuana is legal, that condition may not be covered — and if a veteran seeks treatment through the local Veterans Administration, he or she may never know that cannabis might be a treatment option.
Federal law currently prevents the use of marijuana for treating PTSD and places strict limits on research into the medical applications of cannabis overall. For those reasons, Veterans Administration doctors and therapists are banned from prescribing marijuana, and may not even be able to discuss it with patients.
Fighting for the Right to Cannabis
The Veteran’s Administration is facing pressure from many veterans’ advocacy groups including The American Legion to allow more research into the effects of marijuana on soldiers with PTSD. Currently, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, considered along with heroin and LSD to have a high potential for abuse with no recognized medical benefits.
The American Legion is requesting that the Trump administration reclassify marijuana to allow for large-scale studies on its benefits for treating veterans with PTSD. Those appeals are facing stiff opposition from the administration’s hard-liners, who are not only resisting new research into the medicinal properties of cannabis but also actively working to roll back existing laws in individual states and make it harder to pass new ones.
This struggle continues even as the Senate recently voted to place the Veterans Equal Access amendment into legislation for military spending and veterans’ affairs in 2018 — a bill intended to expand veterans’ access to medical marijuana nationwide. But that bill still awaits passage in the House of Representatives, where it may stall. For now, the nation’s veterans are still facing a new battle here at home — the fight to get access to safe and effective relief from the symptoms of PTSD.
1 Veterans and PTSD. 20 Sept 2015 Veterans and PTSD. “Veterans statistics: PTSD, Depression, TBI, Suicide.” http://www.veteransandptsd.com/PTSD-statistics.html
2 US Department of Veterans Affairs 14 Feb 2014 National Center for PTSD.
3 Summerall, E. Lanier. US Department of Veterans Affairs.
National Center for PTSD. “Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD.”
4 Veterans and PTSD. 20 Sept 2015 Veterans and PTSD.
“Veterans statistics: PTSD, Depression, TBI, Suicide.”
5 Reisman, Miriam. 14 Oct 2016. Pharmacy and Therapeutics.
“PTSD for Veterans: What’s Working, What’s New, and What’s Next.”
6 Greer GR et al. Jan-Mar 2016. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
“PTSD symptom reports of patients evaluated for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program.”