Late last year, state officials in Colorado set aside nearly $8 million for scientific research into the benefits of marijuana. Now a Pennsylvanian researcher is using some of that money to study the effects of pot on PTSD.
PTSD, also known as post-traumatic stress disorder, affects almost 7 percent of the adult population of America. It’s an anxiety-driven condition caused by severe trauma, usually involving some form of assault. Patients are often combat veterans.
Marcel Bonn-Miller, a medical researcher at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is conducting two of the eight science projects funded by the $8 million grant from Colorado. His work will study the effectiveness of medical weed in treating the symptoms of PTSD.
Those include flashbacks, increased startle response, and extreme anxiety. Many scientists believe the active chemical in cannabis, THC, could be useful in treating the disorder. Bonn-Miller said Colorado officials want more evidence before they can support that idea.
Lack of research supporting MMJ decisions
“Lots of state governments have realized that there isn’t enough research to inform such decisions,” he said. “And that’s partly, in my understanding, the drive for Colorado to fund this research. Because there’s not enough evidence to make a decision one way or another.”
One of Bonn-Miller’s studies will examine how weed helps veterans in Phoenix and Baltimore. Seventy-six subjects will participate, all vets with severe PTSD. This study will use three distinct cannabis strains.
Scientists will continue to follow these patients for six months after the end of the trial. Participants will answer questionnaires and undergo medical exams to determine the efficacy of pot.
Studies to assess efficacy of MMJ
The other study will look at 150 PTSD sufferers in Denver. Half of them, the study group, will be marijuana users, while the other half, the control group, will not. The use of this kind of controlled study allows scientists to understand whether symptom improvements are due to marijuana use or a placebo effect.
In that study, each user with PTSD will be paired with a non-user who also has PTSD. Scientists will then track these pairs to observe the differences, which can indicate whether the weed is working.
“We’re matching types of trauma,” Bonn-Miller said. “So someone who got their PTSD from military service and had been using marijuana… would be paired with someone with PTSD from military service who was a non-marijuana user.”
Colorado leading the way
Colorado’s funding program is a significant departure from the positions taken by U.S. drug officials. The DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, both federal anti-drug agencies, have almost always blocked any federally funded research that might make pot look good.
Marijuana has shown strong anecdotal promise in treating PTSD, but many scientists complain they don’t yet have enough evidence to convince them that it helps. The problem with this approach is that the same scientists are largely responsible for the federal embargo on cannabis research. They want to have it both ways: to study weed out of scientific curiosity but also to make sure no one ever uses it.
The signs from Bonn-Miller’s study are already looking hopeful.
“We were looking at people with PTSD to try to determine why it is they use marijuana,” he said. “And we found a lot of people use it for coping reasons, to try to cope with their symptoms . . . particularly symptoms of poor sleep as well as hyperarousal.”