U.S. veterans using marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder despite scant research

AP

A growing number of U.S. states are weighing whether to legalize marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. But for many veterans, the debate is already over.

They are increasingly using cannabis even though it remains illegal in most states and is unapproved by the Department of Veterans Affairs because major studies have yet to show it is effective against PTSD.

While the research has been contradictory and limited, some former members of the military say pot helps them manage their anxiety, insomnia and nightmares. Prescription drugs such as Klonopin and Zoloft weren’t effective or left them feeling like zombies, some say.

“I went from being an anxious mess to numbing myself with the pills they were giving me,” said Mike Whiter, a 39-year-old former U.S. Marine who lives in Philadelphia, where marijuana is illegal. “Cannabis helped me get out of the hole I was in. I started to talk to people and get over my social anxiety.”

Others, though, have seen little benefit from the drug. The VA has documented a troubling rise in the number of PTSD-afflicted veterans who have been diagnosed with marijuana dependence, which some experts say can hamper recovery from war trauma.

Sally Schindel of Prescott, Arizona, said the VA diagnosed her son Andy Zorn with PTSD after he served in the army in Iraq. The agency later diagnosed him with marijuana dependence as well as depression and bipolar disorder, she said.

Schindel said her son was using marijuana not for recreation but as self-medication, particularly to help him sleep. He killed himself at age 31 in 2014, writing in his suicide note that “marijuana killed my soul & ruined my brain.”

“He told me he found it much harder to quit than he thought it would be,” Schindel said. “He’d buy it and smoke it and then flush the rest of it. The next day he bought it again.”

The stories of vets like Zorn and Whiter have helped fuel the debate over whether states and the federal government should legalize the drug for PTSD treatment. Lawmakers are increasingly sympathizing with vets like Whiter despite the lack of scientific evidence. While some limited studies have shown that marijuana helps people manage PTSD symptoms in the short term, another suggested it may make symptoms worse.

Starting with New Mexico in 2009, 10 states have listed PTSD among the ailments for which medical marijuana can be prescribed, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to end criminalization of the drug. A few more states give doctors broad enough discretion to recommend pot to PTSD sufferers.

Similar measures have been introduced in Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah. In November, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment that would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to vets in states where it is legal. The proposal failed to pass the House.

Federal law requires randomized, controlled trials to prove that a drug is effective before VA doctors can recommend it. Such studies are underway, including two funded by Colorado, where the state health board held off on legalizing marijuana for PTSD because of the lack of major studies.

“There surely is not enough scientific evidence to say marijuana helps PTSD,” said Marcel Bonn-Miller, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is leading the Colorado-backed studies. “But we’ll get a heck of a lot closer to getting to know the answer in two to three years.”

Since 2002, the percentage of PTSD-afflicted veterans who have been diagnosed with marijuana dependence has climbed from 13 percent to nearly 23 percent, according to VA data released last year. That translates to more than 40,000 veterans.

Officially known as “cannabis use disorder,” dependence can mean someone is unable to sleep or becomes irritable without the drug. It can also mean marijuana use has diminished someone’s personal relationships or ability to hold a job.

Dr. Karen Drexler, the VA’s deputy national mental health program director for addictive disorders, said the potential for dependency is yet another reason vets should wait for more research.

“Marijuana may initially provide some relief,” but for those with PTSD, “it’s very hard to stop it once you start it,” she said. “It gets into this vicious cycle.”

She added that the emotion-numbing effects of marijuana can also hinder the most effective treatment for PTSD: talk therapy, in which veterans try to process the trauma they went through.

Some veterans and some doctors disagree.

In Maine, where marijuana can be prescribed for PTSD, Dr. Dustin Sulak, a physician in private practice, said doctors can help vets manage their marijuana use, preventing dependence. Sulak also said pot can help vets engage in talk therapy.

Whiter, the vet from Pennsylvania, said that was his experience.

During his time in Iraq in the mid-2000s, Whiter saw roadside bombs blow up Humvees and people get shot. After he got home, the smell of hot dogs triggered flashbacks to the smell of burning flesh. The VA eventually diagnosed him with PTSD and prescribed medications including Klonopin and Zoloft.

The Klonopin left him nearly unable to function, he said, and he decided to try marijuana after reaching a point “where I didn’t care if I lived or died.”

“I started really engaging in therapy every week and started being really honest with myself and getting over things,” said Whiter, who added that he still takes some Zoloft for his anxiety. “I can’t push enough that therapy is very key in this. It’s not just weed.”

  • claygooding

    The only reason there is scant research is the DEA/NIDA are the final authority on any medical research on the cannabis plant,,,one has to wonder whay a federal drug law enforcement agency would have control of a plant that has been used as medicine for over 7000 years by mankind.
    There are plenty of veterans in the US treating PTSD with cannabis and getting off of up to 20 pharmaceutical drugs used now to try and treat PTSD and failing.
    I started using cannabis where I got problem in VN in 1968 and have used it now for 48 years to keep PTSD from controlling my life and have never used any pharmaceutical drugs to treat it. Nor have I asked for a pension from my government because of it,,saving my country over $84K but this is anecdotal evidence,,which is only used to prove harm in cannabis use,,never for proving efficacy. And I am considered a criminal.

  • Brian Kelly

    Nobody can deny the Medical effectiveness of Medical Marijuana.

    Below is a small sampling of the Professional Medical Organizations Worldwide that attest to Medical Marijuana’s effectiveness and Support Legal Access to and Use of Medical Marijuana.

    Along with over twenty U.S states that have already legalized medical marijuana.

    Are they ALL wrong?

    International and National Organizations

    AIDS Action Council
    AIDS Treatment News
    American Academy of Family Physicians
    American Medical Student Association
    American Nurses Association
    American Preventive Medical Association
    American Public Health Association
    American Society of Addiction Medicine
    Arthritis Research Campaign (United Kingdom)
    Australian Medical Association (New South Wales) Limited
    Australian National Task Force on Cannabis
    Belgian Ministry of Health
    British House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology
    British House of Lords Select Committee On Science and Technology (Second Report)
    British Medical Association
    Canadian AIDS Society
    Canadian Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs
    Dr. Dean Edell (surgeon and nationally syndicated radio host)
    French Ministry of Health
    Health Canada
    Kaiser Permanente
    Lymphoma Foundation of America
    The Montel Williams MS Foundation
    Multiple Sclerosis Society (Canada)
    The Multiple Sclerosis Society (United Kingdom)
    National Academy of Sciences Institute Of Medicine (IOM)
    National Association for Public Health Policy
    National Nurses Society on Addictions
    Netherlands Ministry of Health
    New England Journal of Medicine
    New South Wales (Australia) Parliamentary Working Party on the Use of Cannabis for Medical Purposes
    Dr. Andrew Weil (nationally recognized professor of internal medicine and founder of the National Integrative Medicine Council)

    State and Local Organizations

    Alaska Nurses Association
    Being Alive: People With HIV/AIDS Action Committee (San Diego, CA)
    California Academy of Family Physicians
    California Nurses Association
    California Pharmacists Association
    Colorado Nurses Association
    Connecticut Nurses Association
    Florida Governor’s Red Ribbon Panel on AIDS
    Florida Medical Association
    Hawaii Nurses Association
    Illinois Nurses Association
    Life Extension Foundation
    Medical Society of the State of New York
    Mississippi Nurses Association
    New Jersey State Nurses Association
    New Mexico Medical Society
    New Mexico Nurses Association
    New York County Medical Society
    New York State Nurses Association
    North Carolina Nurses Association
    Rhode Island Medical Society
    Rhode Island State Nurses Association
    San Francisco Mayor’s Summit on AIDS and HIV
    San Francisco Medical Society
    Vermont Medical Marijuana Study Committee
    Virginia Nurses Association
    Whitman-Walker Clinic (Washington, DC)
    Wisconsin Nurses Association

    Additional AIDS Organizations

    The following organizations are signatories to a February 17, 1999 letter to the US Department of Health petitioning the federal government to “make marijuana legally available … to people living with AIDS.”

    AIDS Action Council
    AIDS Foundation of Chicago
    AIDS National Interfaith Network (Washington, DC)
    AIDS Project Arizona
    AIDS Project Los Angeles
    Being Alive: People with HIV/AIDS Action Committee (San Diego, CA)
    Boulder County AIDS Project (Boulder, CO)
    Colorado AIDS Project
    Center for AIDS Services (Oakland, CA)
    Health Force: Women and Men Against AIDS (New York, NY)
    Latino Commission on AIDS
    Mobilization Against AIDS (San Francisco, CA)
    Mothers Voices to End AIDS (New York, NY)
    National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual And Transgender Association
    National Native American AIDS Prevention Center
    Northwest AIDS Foundation
    People of Color Against AIDS Network (Seattle, WA)
    San Francisco AIDS Foundation
    Whitman-Walker Clinic (Washington, DC)

    Other Health Organizations

    The following organizations are signatories to a June 2001 letter to the US Department of Health petitioning the federal government to “allow people suffering from serious illnesses … to apply to the federal government for special permission to use marijuana to treat their symptoms.”

    Addiction Treatment Alternatives
    AIDS Treatment Initiatives (Atlanta, GA)
    American Public Health Association
    American Preventive Medical Association
    Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights (San Francisco, CA)
    California Legislative Council for Older Americans
    California Nurses Association
    California Pharmacists Association
    Embrace Life (Santa Cruz, CA)
    Gay and Lesbian Medical Association
    Hawaii Nurses Association
    Hepatitis C Action and Advisory Coalition
    Life Extension Foundation
    Maine AIDS Alliance
    Minnesota Nurses Association
    Mississippi Nurses Association
    National Association of People with AIDS
    National Association for Public Health Policy
    National Women’s Health Network
    Nebraska AIDS Project
    New Mexico Nurses Association
    New York City AIDS Housing Network
    New York State Nurses Association Ohio Patient Network Okaloosa AIDS Support and Information Services (Fort Walton, FL)
    Physicians for Social Responsibility – Oregon
    San Francisco AIDS Foundation
    Virginia Nurses Association
    Wisconsin Nurses Association

    Health Organizations Supporting Medical Marijuana Research

    International and National Organizations

    American Cancer Society
    American Medical Association
    British Medical Journal
    California Medical Association
    California Society on Addiction Medicine
    Congress of Nursing Practice
    Gay and Lesbian Medical Association
    Jamaican National Commission on Ganja
    National Institutes of Health (NIH) Workshop on the Medical Utility of Marijuana
    Texas Medical Association
    Vermont Medical Society
    Wisconsin State Medical Society

  • Brian Kelly

    When a loved one is in pain, wasting away unable to eat, and needs this marvelous herb in order to increase their appetite, reduce the overwhelming pain, and live as as healthy and happily as they can with the time they have left, let’s have the compassion to allow them to have it.

    Stop treating Medical Marijuana Patients like second rate citizens and common criminals by forcing them to the dangerous black market for their medicine.

    Risking incarceration to obtain the medicine you need is no way to be forced to live.

    Support Medical Marijuana Now!

    “[A] federal policy that prohibits physicians from alleviating suffering by prescribing marijuana for seriously ill patients is misguided, heavy-handed, and inhumane.” — Dr. Jerome Kassirer, “Federal Foolishness and Marijuana,” editorial, New England Journal of Medicine, January 30, 1997

    “[The AAFP accepts the use of medical marijuana] under medical supervision and control for specific medical indications.” — American Academy of Family Physicians, 1989, reaffirmed in 2001

    “[We] recommend … allow[ing] [marijuana] prescription where medically appropriate.” — National Association for Public Health Policy, November 15, 1998

    “Therefore be it resolved that the American Nurses Association will: — Support the right of patients to have safe access to therapeutic marijuana/cannabis under appropriate prescriber supervision.” — American Nurses Association, resolution, 2003

    “The National Nurses Society on Addictions urges the federal government to remove marijuana from the Schedule I category immediately, and make it available for physicians to prescribe. NNSA urges the American Nurses’ Association and other health care professional organizations to support patient access to this medicine.” — National Nurses Society on Addictions, May 1, 1995

    “[M]arijuana has an extremely wide acute margin of safety for use under medical supervision and cannot cause lethal reactions … [G]reater harm is caused by the legal consequences of its prohibition than possible risks of medicinal use.” — American Public Health Association, Resolution #9513, “Access to Therapeutic Marijuana/Cannabis,” 1995

    “When appropriately prescribed and monitored, marijuana/cannabis can provide immeasurable benefits for the health and well-being of our patients … We support state and federal legislation not only to remove criminal penalties associated with medical marijuana, but further to exclude marijuana/cannabis from classification as a Schedule I drug.” — American Academy of HIV Medicine, letter to New York Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, November 11, 2003

  • mmw421

    This is the reason war veterans don’t have access to medical cannabis? Because of stories about 31 year old men claiming weed made them kill themselves. Really? Stop saying “despite the lack of scientific research” as if the research was inconclusive or says otherwise. THE RESEARCH ISNT BEING DONE! Schedule 1 drugs need ridiculous levels of clearance to be studied. That’s why Colorado is getting the ball rolling. Cause it’s not a controlled substance there. The tobacco, alcohol, prison, police, and pharmaceutical industries don’t want the benefits of cannabis studied. So stop writing about things you don’t understand. Also this “Cannabis Dependence Syndrome” is actually cannabis treating your symptoms. If cannabis makes you fall asleep, of course without it you won’t be able to sleep. Just like if you take depression meds and suddenly stop taking them you’ll be depressed again. What kind of idiots wrote this crap?

  • mmw421

    This is the reason war veterans don’t have access to medical cannabis? Because of stories about 31 year old men claiming weed made them kill themselves. Really? Stop saying “despite the lack of scientific research” as if the research was inconclusive or says otherwise. THE RESEARCH ISNT BEING DONE! Schedule 1 drugs need ridiculous levels of clearance to be studied. That’s why Colorado is getting the ball rolling. Cause it’s not a controlled substance there. The tobacco, alcohol, prison, police, and pharmaceutical industries don’t want the benefits of cannabis studied. So stop writing about things you don’t understand. Also this “Cannabis Dependence Syndrome” is actually cannabis treating your symptoms. If cannabis makes you fall asleep, of course without it you won’t be able to sleep. Just like if you take depression meds and suddenly stop taking them you’ll be depressed again. What kind of idiots wrote this crap?

  • Mr.Mansuit

    This is coming from a culture that’s anti-drug. I gave up marijuana for months and I had few to totally manageable side effects. The only side effect that was unavoidable was that I missed my weed like an old friend. Taking pharmaceuticals worked, but the come down could’ve been deadly. I also have permanent medical damage from taking totally legal pharmaceuticals. I’m not a veteran, I didn’t risk my life for my country. However, I do know that taking marijuana to ease pain is the smart thing to do.