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Feds approve medicinal marijuana research to help treat vets with PTSD

Depending on results of study door opens for physicians to be able to legally prescribe marijuana for PTSD sufferers
Depending on results of study door opens for physicians to be able to legally prescribe marijuana for PTSD sufferers
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

The luck of the Irish was contagious on St. Patrick's Day with the news that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) gave the green light for researchers from the University of Arizona to purchase marijuana to study the drug's effectiveness in treating PTSD symptoms in veterans. As it was reported Monday, March 17 in MSN News by the Associated Press, the Department of Health and Human Services opened up a door that was previously closed permitting the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) the approval to purchase marijuana from the nation's only federally-sanctioned source located on a farm in Mississippi. According to MAP's website, they were notified in writing on Friday, March 14 that the U.S. Public Health Service approved their study of smoked or vaporized marijuana to treat posttraumatic stress disorder in veterans. After working for over 22 years to get the study up and running, MAPS still needs the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to sign off and face the next hurdle of securing a funding source to pay for the study. Principal researcher Suzanne Sisley does not anticipate any hurdles from the DEA and expects to begin the pilot study with a group of 50 combat veterans.

Many individuals diagnosed with PTSD directly witnessed a traumatic event where they were exposed to an actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. It is not uncommon for soldiers returning home from combat to report having recurrent distressing memories, dreams, and flashbacks from their experiences in battle. Often unable to talk about what happened in war, they avoid these distressing memories, thoughts, and feelings along with people, places, activities, and other events that remind them of the events. They may be unable to remember important aspects of the traumatic event due to blocking the trauma and have other negative alterations in cognition and mood. Other symptoms may include irritable behavior and angry outbursts with little to no provocation, reckless behavior, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, concentration problems, and sleep disturbance. The United States Department of Veteran's Affairs recognizes various approaches to treat PTSD such as cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and provides links for more information in finding a treatment that works for the individual. There is no information provided there about the therapeutic effects of marijuana to treat PTSD for three reasons. One, marijuana is a schedule 1 drug which means that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined it is not have medicinal use as a form of treatment. Two, research has not been conducted to either prove or disprove the FDA's claim. Three, the federal government would have to change the drug's class making it legal for doctors to prescribe to their patients. Finally, even if the Controlled Substance Act were to be modified, physicians would not be writing prescriptions left and right until state laws changed to align with federal ones.

Back in early January, Governor Corbett changed his position on legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania. Previously, he vowed to veto any bill that crossed his desk from the state legislature attempting to make medicinal recreational pot use legal in this state. Corbett clarified his position stating that he is not insensitive to Pennsylvania citizens suffering from physical and mental health issues. Rather, the Governor is committed to following federal laws and is open to changing the laws if the FDA approves the medicinal use of the drug. As it stands now, the Pennsylvania Code outlines the manufacturing process, standards of operation, emergency dispensing, security requirements, schedules of controlled substances, and other policies about the sale and regulation of legalized prescription drugs. Oxycodone, which is a semi-synthetic opioid used to treat moderate to severe pain, is listed on the PA Code as one of the drugs that requires a prescription for use. Oxycodone is also regulated by the Controlled Substance Act and is listed as a schedule II drug which means that major difference why this drug was approved for use and marijuana is not is that it was determined to have medicinal value. Considering Oxycodone is one of the most widely abused drugs which gives users a high similar to one felt by using heroine or morphine and may lead to severe physical and psychological dependence, it is interesting that it passed the test as a schedule 2 drug. As a schedule 1 drug, marijuana was determined to have a lack of accepted safety even with medical monitoring. Sisley's study may uncover what many pot smokers claim to be true but lacks evidence to back is that marijuana relieves symptoms of pain and increases appetite which for individuals diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome, cancer, and other diseases may be the only way they can live their lives with some comfort.

Learning that NIDA flashed the go-forward light should make one PA State Senator elated. Last month it was reported in PennLive that Senator Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican, sponsored Senate Bill 1182 calling for the legalization of marijuana in Pennsylvania. Folmer researched the medical benefits of marijuana to be prescribed for medicinal use and believes that cannabis could be used to reduce seizures for people with epilepsy, alleviate the symptoms of chemotherapy for cancer patients, and to treat the symptoms of PTSD. Folmer believes that the scientific proof will back these claims but understands that it will take evidence to convince lawmakers. To date, there were no floor votes or committee votes for Senate Bill 1182, and it will likely sit there untouched. With NIDA permitting the study and funding to determine the therapeutic benefits of cannaboids for the treatment of pain, addiction, and other disorders, it may not matter if Folmer's bill sits on a shelf as Sisley's research may provide the scientific evidence needed for the FDA to put marijuana in a different category of drugs recognizing that it has medicinal benefits for some people and opening the door to another treatment option for people dealing with the symptoms of PTSD. For those returning home from combat, having the option to smoke pot grown on a farm instead of a drug manufactured in a factory is one option that may soon be on the table.