Despite the legal progression of cannabis, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) allows only 8 conditions for physicians to recommend cannabis for medical use. Of those 8, none are mental health related. An estimated 10-20% of US military veterans and up to 7 million people in the United States suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and its related symptoms. Yet the CDPHE has denied the addition of any mental conditions that indicate the beneficial use of cannabis.
This is important for veterans and others seeking medical attention for their condition because, for instance, veterans that test positive for THC in the hospital may be barred from Veterans Affairs benefits because THC is still federally illegal. In this respect, though veterans and others suffering from PTSD may physically access cannabis in Colorado like any adult over 21 years of age, it is still illegal in many ways for those individuals to treat or alleviate the debilitating symptoms they live with. Since the Medical Marijuana Registry Program began in 2001 the CDPHE has received petitions to add medical conditions to the list of conditions for which physicians may recommend medical cannabis but none have been approved. Thus, despite the advancements of legalization for recreational use of cannabis, Colorado lags behind a large portion of the country that considers the complete well being of combat veterans, survivors of assault, and others that may suffer from the debilitating symptoms PTSD.
New Mexico was the first state government to recognize the potential of cannabis to alleviate anxiety, unwanted memories, and severe depression associated with PTSD in 2009. In July 2014, Arizona joined 9 other states that recognize such potential. Still though, the CDPHE demands more research to be procured for the department to better understand the possible benefits of cannabis for such symptoms. The 10 states that do recognize the profound potential benefit of cannabis for mental health, however, have examined existing studies that have clearly demonstrated the medicinal benefit of cannabis against PTSD symptoms.
New Mexico considered PTSD a debilitating condition that qualified individuals for medical use of cannabis without any published studies. The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, a peer-reviewed scholarly periodical, then published “PTSD Symptom Reports of Patients Evaluated for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program” in March 2014 that studied 80 psychiatric evaluations of patients applying to the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program from 2009 to 2011. In brief, there was a 75% reduction in symptom scores reported when patients were using cannabis compared to when they were not. These overwhelmingly suggestive results led researchers to conclude the study warrants a further in-depth placebo-controlled study.
Research in the United States following New Mexico’s allowance of cannabis for PTSD has been echoed by studies in other countries like Israel. There it is estimated that nearly 10% of the general population suffers from PTSD symptoms. Researchers at Haifa University’s Department of Psychology have concluded that cannabis inhibits the brain’s recognition of trauma reminders. That is to say cannabis distracts or soothes those with PTSD symptoms to such a degree that certain stressful or anxiety heightening moments that would usually lead to a panic attack or other psychological detriment go unnoticed or are altogether tolerable to the individual. The science behind this phenomenon is cannabis’ relationship to the two receptors in the brain, specifically in the hippocampus, that are associated with emotional processing. In short, cannabis prevents detrimental changes that take place in the brain’s fear circuit following trauma. THC specifically targets the system in the brain that is critical for fear and anxiety modulation. In some tests Israeli research teams discovered that cannabis made the effects of trauma reminders disappear altogether. Thus, they have concluded that cannabis is profoundly beneficial and it is necessary to conduct human trials to examine potential ways to prevent the development of PTSD.
Following the recent developments of international research demonstrating the benefit of cannabis for PTSD, the US Federal Government, in March 2014, allowed for the purchase of cannabis by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which supports medical research and legalization of cannabis and other drugs, from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the only federally sanctioned source of the drug, to study the effect of cannabis on PTSD suffered by military veterans. This signifies an unprecedented paradigm shift in research of cannabis; from largely studying only the risks of drug abuse and addiction to the potential benefits of illegal substances.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper then passed a senate bill concerning grant funding for medical cannabis health effects studies in May, 2014. Short of allowing PTSD to qualify for medical use of cannabis, the bill allocates $10 million for further research to be conducted concerning the benefits of cannabis for a multitude of medical conditions and their debilitating symptoms. The purpose of the bill, as stated in the legislature itself, says, “Other state-funded medical research programs have advanced the scientific knowledge about how marijuana works and methods to ensure appropriate dosing. Colorado can now advance that knowledge further.” Instead of trusting the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychoactive Drugs or numerous studies out of universities in Israel, the unequivocal leader in medical research of cannabis, Colorado will require years of in-state research on the potential health benefits of cannabis so PTSD might be considered as a debilitating condition that cannabis may help. The first progress report of the study on where the $10 million is going and what conditions are being studied is set for January 2016 with reports on preliminary findings due each year thereafter. In other words, it could be years before Colorado joins the ten other states nationwide who recognize the potential of cannabis to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.
Over 100,000 Coloradans already use cannabis to relieve symptoms that do not respond to conventional treatments. If the medical use of cannabis for mental health conditions is sanctioned by the Colorado government in the future, researchers and medical physicians could have a clearer picture of who uses inappropriately named “recreational marijuana” for debilitating symptoms simply not recognized by health physicians or the state government. Those anticipated statistics will place greater attention on how conventional treatments for these disorders are failing thousands, if not millions of Americans who could benefit from holistic and safe use of cannabis for help. Only then, when everybody who needs access to medicinal cannabis can achieve relief, can Colorado truly be called a leader in cannabis.
By: Richard Klassen