PTSD Treatment Cannabis
Jim Alderman still suffers from PTSD he developed as a result of serving as a marine in Vietnam. Photo: DoD News

Jim Alderman still suffers from PTSD he developed as a result of serving as a marine in Vietnam. Photo: DoD News

The term shell shock was originally coined in 1915 to describe the psychological aftereffects of combat. Now it’s recognised as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and as many as 20 percent of US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are believed to suffer from it. The Veterans Association (VA) estimated that in 2012, around 22 former members of the military committed suicide every day.

What can be done about PTSD?

PTSD is commonly treated with Zoloft and Paxil and other powerful medications. But 23 of these United States and the District of Columbia now permit marijuana for medical purposes, and many veterans are calling out for it. New Mexico recently began to allow VA hospitals to prescribe cannabis for PTSD and Maine followed suit. The Veterans Equal Access Act aims to get other states to do the same; the Senate Appropriations Committee voted in favour in May 2015. Otherwise, VA doctors are not permitted to even mention cannabis to their patients, which Steve Daines, the Republican senator for Montana behind this amendment, decried as unconstitutional.

Actually, a lot

A study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2013 showed a 75 percent reduction in PTSD in patients employing cannabis. Again in 2015, the Washington Post reported that researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center were developing cannabis-related medications for PTSD. Many veterans have chosen not to wait for governmental approval.

Psychiatrist Sue Sisley, MD, has never smoked cannabis, describes herself as a “lifelong Republican” and has supported anti-workplace-smoking legislation. She has also treated PTSD sufferers for two decades and has oft heard patients inform her of the benefits of marijuana to their symptoms. Initially, she was sceptical but not now. Family members would tell her of how “this plant” had given them their husband or father back.

Sisley describes her field as “very conservative.” She grieved that Zoloft and Paxil have many side effects and often do no good with PTSD. Those side effects include weight gain and erectile dysfunction. So vets return from service wishing to reintegrate with their families “and we make them fat and impotent.”

Sisley will lead one of the first large scale studies of the effectiveness of cannabis in treating PTSD, assisted by a grant of $2 million from the Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council of Colorado. 76 vets whose PTSD has proven resistant to treatment will be the subjects.

How cannabis helps

The emotional centre of the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, deals with fear and memory. PTSD is considered to result from what Sisley calls “excessive firing within those structures.” Marijuana calms you down and, specifically, it calms this, allowing sufferers “not to forget bad memories but to not fixate on them.”

Apart from erections, another plus point of cannabis is how quickly it works. Vets enduring sleep deprivation would sometimes have their first good night of sleep after using cannabis. Other might have to do it five times, but even this is considerably faster than traditional meds, which may take months. Sisley sang the praises of cannabis: “Once they’ve tried it, many vets don’t look back.”

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