Is cannabis the answer for treating PTSD?

Is cannabis the answer for treating PTSD?

Marijuana, along with nine other substances, is specifically prohibited under Article 112a of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and penalties for its use can range from a general discharge to dishonorable discharge (for positive results of a urinalysis) and even imprisonment for possession. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Mitchell)

By Rindi White


The Department of Defense takes a hard line on cannabis consumption: anyone caught using it will be subject to disciplinary action. That includes National Guard and Reserve soldiers as well as active-duty members.


But should it apply to veterans – specifically those seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder?


At a May 31 meeting between Veterans Affairs secretary Dr. David Shulkin and reporters, Shulkin was asked if Congress should reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to allow it to be better used for medical purposes.


“Well, right now, federal law does not prevent us at VA to look at that as an option for veterans. I believe that everything that could help veterans should be debated by Congress and by medical experts, and we will implement that law,” Shulkin said.


Asked his opinion as a physician, Shulkin said that in states where medical marijuana is allowed, he has seen “some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful.” But until federal law changes, he said, the VA would not be able to prescribe medical marijuana as a treatment option.


Neighboring Canada has one of the highest rates of lifetime PTSD – according to a 2016 British Journal of Psychiatry article Canada had the highest rate of 16 other countries, at 9.2 percent. The list of countries it was compared to included the United States, Australia, South Africa and Iraq, among other nations. The U.S. ranked fourth on the list, behind Netherlands and Austrialia in second and third place, respectively.


In hopes of finding better treatment options, a group of Canadian scientists are looking into treating PTSD using medical marijuana. Clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus Zach Walsh is leading the study.  


Walsh, in an article published by The Georgia Straight, an urban weekly paper in Vancouver, British Columbia, said some of his patients are self-medicating with marijuana, so he said it was his and his colleagues’ jobs as health scientists to figure out if it’s working.


Walsh told the Georgia Straight that PTSD patients are typically given a cocktail of prescription drugs that might include antidepressants, sleeping pills and antipsychotics. But some patients dislike the side effects, which can include sudden death, obesity, hypertension and risky withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana, he said, seems to have fewer negative side effects.


Tilray, a medical cannabis provider licensed by Health Canada, is providing the cannabis for the study. In a press release about the study, the company stated Walsh and his colleagues are conducting a triple-blind study of 42 PTSD patients from various backgrounds, including military service, first responders or police, as well as those whose PTSD stems from being victims of violence or sexual assault.


Each participant will use two of three treatments in a vaporizer for three weeks each. The first is a placebo with no active ingredients; the second is a tetrahydrocannabinol-dominant strain with 10 percent THC; the third is a strain that includes 10 percent THC and 10 percent cannabidiol.


An emergency physician working on the trial will oversee the medical safety of the patients involved. The study, reportedly the largest of its size in Canada undertaken in the last 40 years, is expected to conclude in 2018.

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