Health Care

Kevlar for the Mind: Marijuana for PTSD needs more study

Advances in treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder have been slow. That's unfortunate, considering that we've been at war for well over a decade. And it's even more troubling since PTSD is one of the signature injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Although progress in alleviating the stress of war has not kept pace with the number of newly diagnosed cases of PTSD, progress has occurred. Cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal talk therapies have been refined for veterans. Medications for PTSD continue to be studied and we know how to better control nightmares, sleep and agitation.

The lack of progress in more traditional approaches to treating PTSD arguably has led to experimental and questionable intervention methods. A prime example is MDMA. Better known as Ecstasy and Molly, this synthetic drug is being studied as a treatment for PTSD. Due to regulatory challenges and safety concerns, progress has been slow, but initial research indicates it may be helpful when combined with psychotherapy.

Marijuana also is being studied for the treatment of PTSD. In fact, some states have put medical marijuana on the approved list for PTSD.

But the benefit of marijuana use is uncertain. To date, most of the reported therapeutic benefits are anecdotal, many from testimonials by veterans who use it. There's little or no rigorous scientific research supporting the use of marijuana for PTSD, especially in combat veterans, and relatively few clinicians and researchers support its use. In fact, some reputable organizations like The National Center for PTSD report that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD.

The adverse effects of marijuana use should come as no surprise. Decades of research have linked problems like respiratory disease, memory loss, reduced motivation and attention, and psychiatric problems to marijuana use. Regarding the latter, even short-term use leads to psychotic symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations in certain people. It's likely that these problems will intensify as stronger strains of the drug are engineered.

As a psychologist who has treated countless service members and veterans with PTSD, I welcome any new means for relieving the distress associated with combat trauma, however unlikely they may seem. But until the scientific community adequately studies this issue and can clearly demonstrate the safety and benefits of marijuana for treating PTSD, its use for the disorder should not be promoted or sanctioned at the state or federal level.

I don't make that recommendation lightly. I am acutely aware of the limitations of our current treatments for veterans. However, considering the existing rate of drug and alcohol abuse within our ranks and the various psychological and physical health effects of marijuana, for now, we should continue to "just say no."

Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. Email him at kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.

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