That’s what a study in August’s Journal of the American Medical Association suggested. Risperdal, a widely prescribed antipsychotic, is no more effective in treating PTSD than placebos, it reported. This finding adds to earlier research on the ineffectiveness of most PTSD medications.
But there is a drug that has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Unfortunately, Veterans Affairs doctors can’t recommend it, and the federal government won’t allow research to proceed that could prove its effectiveness. What’s the drug? Marijuana.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws on the books, but we are still a long way from general acceptance of the drug as a medicine. If we’re serious about seeking an effective remedy for post-traumatic stress, and serving the hundreds of thousands of veterans with the disorder, this needs to change. It’s not a guaranteed solution, but sufficient evidence exists to show that it’s a treatment that needs to be explored further.
In 2006, one of the pioneers of medical marijuana in the United States, the late Tod Mikuriya, published a paper in a cannabis research journal reporting on his experience with PTSD sufferers. He compared marijuana to commonly prescribed medications and noted that the former worked better to control chronic stressors, without adverse side effects. “Based on both safety and efficacy,” he wrote, “cannabis should be considered first in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
A few years later, the Israeli physician Irit Akirav published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that alluded to the potential benefits of marijuana for PTSD patients. He found in an animal study that cannabinoids — the active chemicals in marijuana — may reduce the effects of PTSD. “The results of our research,” Akirav noted, “should encourage psychiatric investigation into using cannabinoids in post-traumatic stress patients.”
In New Mexico, where PTSD was added as a qualifying condition to the state’s medical marijuana program after an evaluation of the available research, more patients use marijuana for PTSD than for any other condition.
Veterans, if given the option to use marijuana to alleviate PTSD, would probably take advantage of the opportunity. In September, the military newspaper Stars and Stripespublished a story about Army Sgt. Jamey Raines, who talked openly about how he had used marijuana to treat PTSD triggered by heavy combat duty in Iraq. Marijuana was not just helpful, Raines said — it was the only substance he found effective.
Of course this evidence is still limited and in some cases anecdotal; for conclusive answers, we need FDA-approved research to assess the benefits of marijuana in a clinical environment. Fortunately, earlier this year, the FDA approved such a protocol to study the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans suffering from chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. But that’s where the good news ends.