Vets lined up in Denver last weekend for free pot distributed by Grow For Vets, a cannabis advocacy outfit that claims to have given away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana products to veterans.
Begun last year in Colorado, the group has since expanded to Oregon, California and Nevada. Organizers sponsored the event to protest the recent Colorado State Board of Health’s decision against including PTSD on the list of ailments eligible for medical marijuana treatment.
The main proponents of marijuana use for PTSD are not scientists, but pro-marijuana organizations whose primary agenda is the introduction of marijuana to as many people as possible.
The board was right. The main proponents of marijuana use for PTSD are not scientists, but pro-marijuana organizations whose primary agenda is the introduction of marijuana to as many people as possible. As a psychologist and Iraq War veteran who has treated thousands of veterans, I find the potential targeting of veterans to advance a drug-based agenda troubling.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an often chronic condition estimated to affect 10 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The rate is even higher among Vietnam veterans, reaching 30 percent.
Today’s Department of Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed with the number of former military personnel suffering from the disorder. Recent statistics have highlighted the harsh reality that among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking care from VA facilities, approximately half are diagnosed with a mental disorder. A sizeable portion of that is PTSD.
The advances in PTSD treatment have been slow, but steady. Talk therapies have been studied and refined specifically for veterans. The most notable are exposure therapy that reduces distress through the process of habituation by repeatedly telling the traumatic story, and cognitive therapy, which challenges maladaptive thought patterns that maintain PTSD symptoms.
Although new medications targeting PTSD have not hit the market since the Afghan and Iraq wars started, new studies of old medications continue to support their use with America’s newest generation of veterans.
Experimental, and arguably questionable, chemical treatments for PTSD are underway. The synthetic and psychoactive drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy or Molly, is being studied in veterans with PTSD. Some preliminary data suggests it may be a helpful adjunct to psychotherapy, but it’s far from accepted as a viable treatment. Significant concerns exist about the addictive and harmful properties of the drug.
Even more concerning is that marijuana is being touted as an effective treatment for combat PTSD.
Even more concerning is that marijuana is being touted as an effective treatment for combat PTSD. To date, there is no rigorous clinical research indicating that marijuana is helpful in alleviating the debilitating effects of the disorder.
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In fact, the National Center for PTSD reports that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD. Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and trauma expert, agrees.
“The emotional, behavioral, and neurological effects of marijuana use varies among people,” Tedeschi said. “The drug may provide short-term relief for one person, but contribute to further psychiatric problems in another.”
A number of negative effects of marijuana have been well documented. In addition to short-term memory loss, marijuana leads to respiratory disease, motor coordination deficits, and psychiatric disturbances. Regarding the latter, chronic marijuana use can produce psychotic symptoms that are indistinguishable from schizophrenia.
Chronic marijuana use can produce psychotic symptoms that are indistinguishable from schizophrenia.
Many of our nation’s veterans already suffer from drug and alcohol use disorders, in addition to PTSD. Conflating a temporary high with the sustained relief from anxiety, depression, and nightmares that’s provided by evidence-based therapies confuses the issue. In addition to possibly causing further harm to the veteran, it may prevent those greatest in need from seeking professional help.
Promoting an illicit drug cure for PTSD when there is little science or clear rational reasoning is a bad idea. Until the scientific community adequately studies the issue and can clearly demonstrate the positive benefits of marijuana for PTSD, the practice of promoting its use to veterans with PTSD should stop.
A former military psychologist and veteran of the Iraq War, Bret Moore is the author of “Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress and Fear” and “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment.”