Should PTSD Be Treated with Marijuana?

Medically Reviewed

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health issue experienced by those who survive some type of life-threatening event. Soldiers returning from war, survivors of a school shooting, rape victims, and car accident survivors may all experience PTSD because of the traumas they have experienced. The disorder can make these people relive the horrifying details of the event again and again, even when they want to move on with their lives.

Some groups are moving toward using marijuana to assist those with PTSD. For example, Psychology Today reports that veterans in Canada can be reimbursed by their government for up to 10 grams of marijuana per day for the treatment of PTSD.

Similarly, Scientific American reports that New York and 26 other states have made the use of medical marijuana legal for those who have been diagnosed with PTSD. With their prescriptions, they can buy marijuana from a dispensary.

Given that such large entities are making it easier for people with PTSD to access marijuana, you may be tempted to try the drug yourself to curb symptoms of PTSD. If you choose to experiment, there are important things to keep in mind.

What Does the Research Say?

Marijuana is a drug that can latch onto specific receptors scattered throughout the brain and body. When marijuana elements attach to their receptors, they trigger chemical reactions that can persist for a long period after use has stopped.

Researchers have attempted to determine just how effective marijuana is as a therapy for PTSD, but unfortunately, that research has been conducted in a less-than-ideal manner.

In an article published in The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, researchers explain a review process they conducted to determine marijuana’s efficacy against PTSD. They examined studies published as far back as 2014, hoping to find a clear consensus about the drug’s ability.

They found that the studies that have been published about the drug were observational, meaning that both the researchers and the patients were aware of who was taking drugs. There was no placebo control. If patients said they felt better or worse, that was recorded as a real result. This mode of research can be troubling, as patients may exaggerate the response in some way.

Researchers writing for the journal The Mental Health Clinician found similar results. The researchers here report that the results of the studies they examined were conflicting. They also said the evidence they could find was anecdotal, which made it difficult to know if marijuana really helps. It’s also hard to know just how marijuana might help people with PTSD with study results like these.

Researchers are actively working on new studies. In fact, an article in the journal Psychiatric Annals suggests that the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved study to test the efficacy of marijuana in people with PTSD was approved in spring 2018. But it will take time for that research to be completed, and researchers will need yet more time to examine the results and come to comprehensive conclusions.

At this moment, it is not yet safe to say that marijuana has the approval of the scientific community for the treatment of PTSD. When more studies have been completed, and the data has been analyzed, that may change. For now, researchers just aren’t sure this is a therapy that works.

Why Do People Use It?

If the study results are not clear, why do people choose to take marijuana? They may be relying on anecdotal evidence, and those reports can be compelling.

In an NBC article, a man with PTSD reports that alcohol was the only substance that could help him to deal with nightmares and difficult memories from his time in Iraq, and alcohol left him feeling sedated and depressed. He claims that he felt suicidal before he used marijuana, and now, he feels more in control.

Stories like this can be enticing for someone living with PTSD. If you live in a state in which marijuana is legal, you could simply head to a dispensary and buy the drug to try in the privacy of your own home. You may even have friends or neighbors who use the drug, and they might advise you on what strains to buy and how often to use it. In some parts of the country, marijuana use seems commonplace, just like drinking alcohol.

It is important to remember that marijuana is not benign. It may come from plants, which makes it a natural substance, but it also can alter your brain chemistry. And despite the rumors to the contrary, marijuana has been associated with addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 30 percent of people who use marijuana have some degree of marijuana use disorder. They may feel discomfort when they attempt to stop taking the drug, and they may feel the need to take more of the drug to feel the same level of high.

People with PTSD may attempt to medicate with marijuana and find that they develop a subsequent addiction to the substance. That dual diagnosis of addiction and PTSD can be dangerous, as the two conditions can augment and strengthen each other. It can take time and professional help to recover, and that means marijuana use can make life more complicated for someone with PTSD, not less complicated.

What Else Can You Try?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective way to deal with PTSD. Typically, people with PTSD have 12 to 16 weeks of this form of therapy, according to ADAA, and they focus on changing thought patterns and behavior in each session.

Marijuana in a prescription bottle around papers and a stethoscope on a tableThey practice their skills with the help of a therapist, and they use their time outside of appointments to put those skills to work. The therapy is tightly focused on the trauma the person endured, and the treatment is made to help the person process the emotions it engendered so they can move on with life.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that marijuana is still considered an illegal substance at the federal level, and that means VA staff cannot recommend or distribute the drug.

Doctors cannot write prescriptions for eligibility in state-run marijuana programs, and patients cannot bring marijuana to any VA facility.

Those who participate in VA programs and hope to add medications to their therapy mix will need to get their marijuana elsewhere, or they may take medications that have been approved for the treatment of PTSD.

According to the American Psychological Association, those medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac) or nerve medications (like Effexor). Your doctor may need to adjust the medication you take and the dose you take until the right mix is found for your health.

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