Marijuana and Mental Health: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Marijuana advocates argue that marijuana and its substances have medicinal properties that can help treat certain illnesses. Various claims suggest that marijuana is beneficial in eating disorder treatment , cancer treatment, and other mental illnesses. Many studies and anecdotes also point toward a relationship between marijuana and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Significant studies suggest that the substances inside the marijuana plant are effective in suppressing PTSD symptoms, however, there is still a need for further research to validate the claims.
The Complexity of Marijuana Research
Before discussing the possible relationship between marijuana and PTSD, it is essential to acknowledge the complexity of marijuana research. Most of the claims that marijuana has a positive effect on PTSD patients are from anecdotal evidence (Hill et al., 2021). They come from PTSD patient reports, which may seem credible. However, since there are other possible contributing factors, the anecdotal evidence lacks credibility. The positive reports from PTSD patients may come from a placebo effect, their lifestyle, underlying conditions, or social environment. Without proper research and clinical studies on the topic, experts cannot prove the relationship between marijuana and PTSD despite multiple anecdotal evidence.
The status of marijuana as a Schedule I drug also complicates marijuana research. As a Schedule I drug, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Only state-specific laws allow the public to sell, manufacture, and consume the substance within a certain jurisdiction. This limitation means that any clinical studies on marijuana require federal approval, making the process difficult (Garvey et al., 2015). Since marijuana is illegal under federal law, then it is less likely for the government to provide approval. There are over 500 chemical substances present in marijuana and scientists have only studied a few (Stoner, 2017). The limitations, plus the number of substances that require studies, make marijuana research a complicated field. On the topic of PTSD, this makes it difficult to learn about the possible effects of marijuana on patients.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a mental disorder that an individual can develop after experiencing a traumatic experience. The definition of a traumatic experience can vary depending on an individual which leads to different causes of PTSD. Some examples of traumatic experiences are physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, accidents, violent events, surviving disasters, responding to a tragic emergency, and the death of a loved one (American Addiction Centers, 2022). After going through a tragic experience, an individual can develop various symptoms, such as depersonalization and derealization, which can then manifest into PTSD.
PTSD sufferers experience multiple symptoms that affect their mental health and prevent them from functioning properly. They can experience nightmares, flashbacks of the traumatic events, behavioral problems, suicidal thoughts, headaches, body pains, and other mental and physical symptoms (American Addiction Centers, 2022). The relationship between marijuana and PTSD focuses on how the drug can suppress or treat these symptoms. Since various studies and anecdotes suggest that marijuana is beneficial in treating mental health issues, it is possible that it can be effective for PTSD treatment.
Marijuana-related Substances and PTSD Treatment
As mentioned earlier, there are over 500 substances inside a marijuana plant. Each of these substances can have positive and negative effects on PTSD treatment, as well as the overall health of a patient. In discussions regarding marijuana and medicine, the substance delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol or THC is the most common subject. In PTSD treatment research, a study learned that the substance nabilone mitigates PTSD symptoms (Heber et al., 2015, cited in Abizaid et al., 2019). Nabilone is a substance that is closely similar to THC, indicating that THC may have the same effects on PTSD patients.
In the previous study mentioned, the researchers used nabilone since using THC will require federal approval. However, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies or MAPS conducted an FDA-regulated study in March 2021. Since the study was FDA-regulated, the researchers were able to use THC and cannabidiol, or CBD. The study showed that PTSD patients experienced improvements in their symptoms after consuming cannabis with THC and CBD concentrations (Rodriguez, 2021). This may be due to cannabinoids’ ability to disrupt traumatic memories and suppress fear memories. This then implies that these specific substances can be effective in treating PTSD symptoms, further indicating that marijuana use can be beneficial for PTSD sufferers.
While THC can have a positive effect on PTSD treatment, the quantity of dosage may vary the effects. According to Crippa et al. (2009), a low dosage of THC decreases anxiety while a higher dosage can increase anxiety (cited in Stoner, 2017). This suggests that patients need to consume marijuana moderately to prevent developing worse symptoms. However, since there are limited studies on the topic, experts cannot identify the dosage that PTSD patients will need to take. Additionally, other cannabinoids present in a marijuana plant may have other effects on PTSD symptoms, making it difficult to claim the effectiveness of THC and CBD in marijuana for treating PTSD.
It is also important to note that humans and other mammals have an endocannabinoid system that produces chemicals similar to those in a marijuana plant. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for stress and emotional responses which are essential in managing anxiety, fear, and stress (Stoner, 2017). Through the activation of receptors in this system, the human body can fight off traumatic experiences, decreasing the severity of PTSD symptoms. Consuming marijuana activates the receptors in the endocannabinoid system, enhancing stress, anxiety, and fear management. This correlation between the endocannabinoid system, marijuana, and PTSD may support the possible effectiveness of marijuana in PTSD treatment.
Marijuana and Increase PTSD Symptoms Severity
Most studies regarding marijuana and PTSD symptoms imply a positive relationship between the two. However, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a study that showed that marijuana abuse increases the severity of PTSD symptoms (American Addiction Center, 2022). This study utilized data from 1991 to 2011 and implies that excessive marijuana use may have an inverse effect on PTSD patients. Since the rate of marijuana abuse has increased after multiple U.S. states legalized the substance, this may lead some PTSD patients to experience severe symptoms. They are now at a higher risk for substance abuse and with the lack of studies on the topic, it will be difficult to mitigate or even predict the outcomes.
A Need for More Research
Marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug makes it difficult to learn more about the substance and its effects on post-traumatic stress disorder. Even current studies that try to understand marijuana and PTSD are lacking due to their limitations. They mostly look at two groups of individuals or utilize a fixed substance in their studies. According to Bonn-Miller et al. (2022), there is a need for randomized placebo-controlled trials to assess the effects of different preparations of cannabis on PTSD and other mental disorders. This can help assess if the effects of marijuana on PTSD patients are due to a placebo effect or a real chemical reaction. There is a need for more research to better understand this relationship and help PTSD patients cope with their symptoms.
Various studies and anecdotes point to the positive effects of marijuana on PTSD treatment. Cannabinoid substances, such as THC and CBD, promote the activation of endocannabinoid system receptors that help in managing stress, anxiety, and fear. Through marijuana consumption, a patient can activate and enhance the performance of these receptors to treat their symptoms. However, there is still a gap in marijuana research and legality that prevents clinical studies from establishing a scientific conclusion on the topic. As the debate regarding the federal legality of marijuana continues, the questions regarding marijuana and its medical properties will remain unanswered.
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Abizaid, A., Merali, Z., & Anisman, H. (2019). Cannabis: A Potential Efficacious Intervention for PTSD or Simply Snake Oil? Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, vol. 44(2). Available at https://doi.org/10.1503/jpn.190021. Accessed July 17, 2022.
American Addiction Centers. (2022). Marijuana Abuse and PTSD. Available at https://americanaddictioncenters.org/marijuana-rehab/marijuana-abuse-and-ptsd. Accessed July 17, 2022.
Bonn-Miller, M., Brunstetter, M., Simonian, A., Loflin, M., Vandrey, R., Babson, K., & Wortzel, H. (2022). The Long-Term, Prospective, Therapeutic Impact of Cannabis on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, vol. 7(2). Available at https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/can.2020.0056. Accessed July 17, 2022.
Earlenbaugh, E. (2020). PTSD Sufferers Who Used Cannabis Were 2.5 Times More Likely To Recover In A Recent Study. Forbes. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilyearlenbaugh/2020/12/22/ptsd-sufferers-who-used-cannabis-were-25-times-more-likely-to-recover-in-a-recent-study/?sh=510435a64321. Accessed July 17, 2022.
Garvey, T., Doyle, C., & Carpenter, D. (2015). Marijuana: Medical and Retail–Selected Legal Issues. Congressional Research Service. Available at https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R43435.pdf. Accessed July 18, 2022.
Hill, N., Loflin, M., Browne, K., & Norman, S. (2021). Cannabis Use and PTSD Among Veterans. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Available at https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/cooccurring/marijuana_ptsd_vets.asp . Accessed July 18, 2022.
Rodriguez Jr., I. (2021). Federal Study Finds Cannabis Beneficial for PTSD Treatment. Veterans of Foreign Wars. Available at https://www.vfw.org/media-and-events/latest-releases/archives/2021/9/federal-study-finds-cannabis-beneficial-for-ptsd-treatment. Accessed July 17, 2022.
Stoner, S. (2017). Effects of Marijuana on Mental Health: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute. Available at https://adai.uw.edu/pubs/pdf/2017mjptsd.pdf. Accessed July 17, 2022.