A vendor points out different varieties of marijuana for sale at a medical marijuana market in Washington state. The Health and Human Services Department has approved a formal study into whether marijuana is effective in the treatment of PTSD. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Physicians in states where medical marijuana is available often prescribe the drug for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
But their assumption — that cannabis can help ease the symptoms of PTSD — is based largely on anecdotes and animal research.
On March 12, a proposed formal study of how effective the plant might be for treating PTSD in veterans took a giant leap forward when it received approval from the Health and Human Services Department.
In a letter to study sponsor Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, an HHS official said researchers have been cleared to buy high-grade marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse — effectively a rubber stamp of the study protocol developed by Dr. Sue Sisley of the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
In her letter, HHS Senior Adviser for Substance Abuse Policy Sarah Wattenberg made suggestions for improving the study, but said approval was not contingent on compliance.
The approval is “exciting news” at MAPS, which also underwrites studies on MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine), or Ecstasy, for treating PTSD in veterans, MAPS spokesman Brad Burge said.
He said marijuana research has been on hold for 22 years, and this proposed study will further the understanding of cannabis’ effects on symptoms such as anxiety, angry outbursts and sleep disorders that are prevalent in those with PTSD.
“With this study, we are hoping to find out what works for people and what doesn’t,” Burge said.
During the three-month study, 50 veterans with combat-related PTSD would be divided into groups and receive the equivalent of two joints a day — 0.9 grams — to smoke or inhale by vaporization. Each participant then would submit weekly observations and confirm that he or she followed protocols.
The study still needs to get through some bureaucratic wickets with the Drug Enforcement Agency, but Burge said that since MAPS sponsors research using a Schedule I substance — MDMA — with the support of the DEA, approval for the use of marijuana should not be a problem.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience by Dr. Irit Akirav of Haifa University showed that pot holds promise for PTSD sufferers; using an artificial cannabis derivative, Akarav found it relieves stress in rats.
Studies have been done in the U.S. on the effects of marijuana on pain and symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other diseases in humans, but no trials have addressed its use for treating PTSD.
Burge expressed hope that the results of this small study will lead to larger investigations and, eventually, to nationwide acceptance of marijuana as a PTSD treatment.
“We have thousands of years of history of human use of this drug, far more years than SSRIs,” Burge said, referring to the class of anti-depressant drugs commonly prescribed for PTSD.
For a Marine in Jacksonville, N.C., who has expressed an interest in studies on the use of marijuana to treat MDMA, news of the HHS decision is welcome. The corporal, 22, who declined to give his name because he is still on active duty, has deployed to Afghanistan and has significant trouble sleeping.
Having smoked pot three times before he enlisted and finding it “put him directly to sleep,” he believes medical marijuana could help his current sleep problems.
“I’ve tried sleep medications and they either make me oversleep or they don’t work at all. It would be nice to be able to get some sleep,” the Marine said.