It’s Time the U.S. Military Makes Peace with Cannabis Treatments for PTSD

Medical marijuana products, when used in a balanced, targeted application, have been shown to relieve anxiety, reduce stress, calm troubling thoughts and in general ease an agitated mind. The mental chill instilled by responsible, doctor directed, therapeutic cannabis use is a source of great hope and available comfort to millions of Americans living under the cloud of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This includes many veterans, where huge numbers are finding relief of their PTSD symptoms by using of medical cannabis.

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What is PTSD?

PTSD is a harrowing sense of dread described by Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic as a chronic mental health condition stemming from witnessing or participating in one or a series of terrifying events. When people are impacted by traumatic experiences, most often a temporary difficulty in adjusting and coping will level out with time and selfcare. In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, persisting symptoms include nightmares, reliving the triggering trauma in flashbacks, debilitating anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

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The American Psychiatric Association estimates that PTSD will trouble 3.5 percent of American adults every year. Approximately one in eleven adults will grapple with PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

The more severe the case of PTSD, the greater chance that symptoms will inflict further trauma. The American Psychiatric Association’s stage four level of PTSD is categorized as “Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity.” These alterations include being overly watchful and easily startled, and irritable, angry reckless outbursts, not always in an exclusively self destructive way.

The possibility of hair-triggered lashing out may in part be why PTSD is of particular concern to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA claims, “We are the world’s leading research and educational center of excellence on PTSD and traumatic stress.”

While it is true that the Department of Veterans Affairs is the exit wing for one of the world’s leading imposers of PTSD, the VA is one step behind leading the world in research and treatment of traumatic stress disorders.

The lag in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ PTSD treatment can be found in the Department’s official policy on medical marijuana:

“Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule One Controlled Substance. This makes it illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is required to follow all federal laws including those regarding marijuana. As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule One, VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.”

cannabis veterans PTSD

Why Is Medical Cannabis Useful for Treating PTSD?

The primary reason individuals living with PTSD turn to medical marijuana products to alleviate the haunting symptoms of their condition is that, as a 2020 Washington State University study reported by Science Daily supports, people experience cannabis working against PTSD.

Participants in the 2020 study, titled “Short and Long-Term Effects of Cannabis on Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” credited cannabis for:

  • 62 percent reduction in severity of intrusive thoughts of the traumatic event
  • 51 percent reduction of flashbacks
  • 67 percent reduction of irritability
  • 57 percent reduction of anxiety

Led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Carrie Cuttler, researchers analyzed data from more than 400 people who pinpointed the effect of cannabis on their PTSD symptoms over a 31-month period. The study’s participants input their data to Strainprint, an app designed to track the particular effects of specific cannabis strains. Strainprint is generally used to aid medical marijuana patients in discovering which strains are most effective in targeting their individual suite of symptoms.

PTSD is the only condition which is a universal qualifier across all medical cannabis programs in states throughout the US. Across the board, states recognize that medical cannabis has many benefits for people experiencing PTSD. This is unprecedented in the industry where every state has its own list of qualifying conditions. Only PTSD appears on every single one of them. We consider this unanimous agreement that medical cannabis works for PTSD.

What Makes THC and CBD Useful for Treating PTSD?

In Healthcare in America’s general terms: “CBD and THC are capable of helping treat people suffering from PTSD by improving the endocannabinoid system’s mediation of essential functions including memory consolidation and retrieval.”

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of receptors throughout the human brain and nervous system that acts as a molecular signaling network. The ECS stimulates chemical responses to regulate biological functions and stabilize imbalances within the human body.

Healthcare in America cites a 2013 study conducted by New York University’s Langone Medical Center that found low levels of the endocannabinoid known as anandamide in people suffering from PTSD. Anandamide is the endocannabinoid that regulates mood and appetite and creates feelings of joy.

Marijuana molecules THC and CBD are responsible for medical cannabis’s ability to replenish crucial anandamide reserves. The psychoactive cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) has a chemical structure almost identical to anandamide. THC binds to and interacts in similar ways with the same endocannabinoid system receptors as anandamide does.

The cannabinoid CBD (cannabidiol) is distinguished from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by its lack of intoxicating effects. CBD impedes the breakdown of the body’s natural anandamide.

Aside from its replacement value for the endocannabinoid anandamide, cannabis also possesses, as pointed out in the 2019 Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, anti-inflammatory properties. These anti-inflammatory properties can contribute to easing psychological conditions linked to inflammation within the brain.

Another area that medical cannabis can help is reduction in the consumption of prescription pharmaceuticals such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines (sedatives), as well as recreational alcohol. Some veterans may also be dealing with other mental health issues that often accompany PTSD, such as depression and anxiety, as well as chronic pain due to injury (and sometimes the unfortunate opioid addictions that can follow).

Download Free Guide to Cannabis and PTSD

Is It Legal for a Member of the Armed Forces to Use Medical Cannabis?

Even in jurisdictions where regulated cannabis products are legally bought and consumed, United States military personnel are prohibited from enjoying the benefits of therapeutic cannabis treatments.

On April 19, 2021, following up on the announcement that recreational marijuana had been legalized in New York state, the Rochester First news outlet ran a service piece titled “Service Members Would Face Consequences if Caught With Marijuana.”

Anthony Kuhn, a military law attorney at Tully Rinckey PLLC, warned active military personnel that the federal government refuses to recognize any state’s laws legalizing marijuana. The federal government’s stance is that marijuana is a highly addictive, Schedule One drug and should not be legalized.

According to what Tully Rinckey PLLC tells Rochester First, any service member who tests positive for cannabis violates the uniform code of military justice and is eligible for up to five years in prison.

Medical cannabis / medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Medical marijuana / cannabis is often touted as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that affects many veterans.

What Does the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Think of Medical Marijuana?

The VA, which is technically a separate entity from the Department of Defense, doesn’t hide how it feels about medical cannabis. The VA’s attitudes and policies are listed openly on its .gov website:

  • Veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use
  • Veterans are encouraged to discuss marijuana use with their VA providers
  • VA health care providers will record marijuana use in the Veteran’s VA medical record
  • VA clinicians may not recommend medical marijuana
  • VA clinicians may only prescribe medications that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical use
  • VA clinicians may not complete paperwork/forms required for Veteran patients to participate in state-approved marijuana programs
  • VA pharmacies may not fill prescriptions for medical marijuana
  • VA will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source
  • VA scientists may conduct research on marijuana benefits and risks, and potential for abuse, under regulatory approval
  • The use or possession of marijuana is prohibited at all VA medical centers, locations and grounds
  • Veterans who are VA employees are subject to drug testing

Veterans grappling with PTSD symptoms are almost as free as any other American to pursue the relief that is available to every resident of a medical cannabis legal state. They might want to let that freedom go unmentioned at the VA.

Dr. Alexander Neumeister, lead author of the NYU Langone Medical Center study that found low levels of anandamide in PTSD sufferers, told Healthcare in America, “There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressants simply do not work. We know very well that people with PTSD who use marijuana often experience more relief from their symptoms than they do from antidepressants and other psychiatric medications. Clearly, there’s a very urgent need to develop novel evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”

Until that happens, it’s a veteran’s own decision to consult a doctor outside the VA system, obtain a medical marijuana recommendation card, and look forward to a lighter, less burdened emotional life.

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Written by
Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell

Allan MacDonell’s work has been featured in publications ranging from Dazed and Confused UK to the New York Times and Washington Post. He is the author of Prisoner of X, Punk Elegies and Now That I Am Gone, and was a founding editorial director at online outlets including Buzznet, TakePart and Kindland. MacDonell views teaming with Leafwell as an opportunity to encourage the emerging role of legal cannabis as a highly effective medical treatment.

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