Bioethics Blogs

Study shows that marijuana has a significant role in relieving PTSD symptoms in combat veterans, more research on the way

STUDENT VOICES

By: Kyle Pritz

The scantiness of marijuana research in the United States of America shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The lack of research is tremendous. However, with new decriminalizing laws budding up, the role of marijuana usage in the symptomatic relief of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic disorders is receiving uncustomary attention in the United States.

In a study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2014, two American psychologists based at SUNY Albany, Jamie Bolles and Mitchell Earleywine, investigated the relationship between marijuana, expectancies, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Using an online questionnaire and maintaining anonymity to enhance the response rate, Earleywine & Bolles surveyed more than 650 combat-exposed, male veterans who used marijuana at least once per week.

The participants reported expectations that marijuana usage would bring relief, minimizing “PTSD symptoms, especially those related to intrusions and arousal,” which are thought to be an ignition for the complex and debilitating, symptomatic feedback cycle of anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) and restlessness. Of course, PTSD, depression and the like aren’t so easily defined.

For each of the disorders, the clusters of symptoms are dynamic, involving cognitive (negative cognitive alterations—i.e. the belief that “it’s my fault”), behavioral (bursts of aggression, recklessness, avoidance), and biological components (genetics, neuroanatomical alterations, neural chemistry, etc.). The symptoms emerge idiosyncratically, varying from a complicated combination of circumstance and personality. Nonetheless, these experiences are very challenging for anyone who endures them.

The researchers found something potentially noteworthy: a significant correlation between the participants’ expectancy for symptomatic relief and marijuana consumption. They also found that there were significant indirect effects of symptoms on use via expectancies, but “no significant interactions of expectancies and symptoms.”

What does this mean? At the very least, this indicates that one’s expectation of the effects of cannabinoids may reduce symptoms, and may help with symptomatic alleviation. Could this be a substantiated placebo effect? To determine the possibility of a placebo effect, certain controls are necessary. This demands more research.

It is crucial to understand that marijuana usage shouldn’t be the only method of recovery, although it is reported to be effective in symptomatic relief of PTSD, anhedonia, negative-cognitive alteration (i.e. the belief that “I am an awful human being who deserves to be in pain”) and maladaptive-memory function, among other conditions. Therapeutic intervention may require that treatment for the participant involves processing uncomfortable emotional experiences, as the literature notes. This means that marijuana usage should be curbed or ceased altogether during treatments or interventions.

In the historical sense, we are standing at pivotal axis in the history of psychology – namely, of mental illness, therapeutic approaches and individualized coping strategies; an old, harmful narrative is being challenged once again. Finally.

It is imperative to remember that not too far in the past, homosexuality was pathologized and considered a mental illness, and smoking cigarettes was thought to result in merely shortness of breath. We have also seen some unpopular, yet invaluable concepts and practices emerge that were once laughable; for example, germ theory and the practice of washing one’s hands before dealing with sick people. Emerging medicinal marijuana research is counter to the widespread societal perception that places emphasis on the criminal status of marijuana – a status that has prevented a large volume of research from happening.

However, there are quite a few limitations to this study: for one, population size and participation. In this study, the data was gathered via online survey, so the traditional limitations apply (for instance, no baseline comparison for subjective reports,).

Secondly, this survey involves an extremely narrow demographic: namely, combat veterans. Fortunately for science, the neuroanatomy of major depressive disorder (MDD), PTSD and the like do not discriminate against who watched whom die or who killed whom under which political pretenses.

Elaborate and persistent focus to the causation of MDD, PTSD and other similar conditions reveal the corrosiveness of ill-intended human interaction. In turn, focus on the potential healing properties of marijuana and similar substances (i.e. ibogaine, ayahuasca), under appropriate circumstances, might reveal less of a need for western medicine and more thoughtfulness. If one thinks hard enough, or even slightly, the fact that war is legal and medical marijuana is not, is completely asinine.

Kyle Pritz, FCRH ’17, is a student-veteran and double major in psychology and philosophy.