Critics of medical marijuana won a victory when the Colorado Board of Health voted 6-2 against adding PTSD to the list of approved conditions for the state’s medical marijuana program.
The arguments against adding PTSD to the list of approved conditions are not without merit. There is evidence that heavy marijuana use is correlated with the development of anxiety disorders and schizophrenia, and can exacerbate the effects of these conditions, particularly for people with a genetic predisposition.
Even so, the negative effects of marijuana use on some, or even most patients with PTSD does not merit a complete ban on its use for medical purposes.
All patients are different and respond differently to various treatments, so it’s important to give doctors and patients the flexibility they need. To a certain degree this flexibility already exists; doctors regularly prescribe medications off-label to treat conditions not intended by the FDA.
This is why right-to-try laws are so valuable, and not just to terminally ill patients. Healthcare professionals need as many treatment options as possible to fulfill their obligations under the Hippocratic oath, to “apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required”.
And there is significant evidence of medical marijuana’s success in treating PTSD. A 2014 study examined New Mexico’s medical marijuana patients with PTSD. It found a significant decline in symptoms related to PTSD for patients treated with marijuana.
Medical marijuana laws
Another study involving mice with induced PTSD showed reduced negative symptoms when certain cannabinoid receptors were stimulated. Similar results were found in humans, leading researchers to recommend complementing therapy with cannabinoid receptor stimuli.
It is possible that this is a placebo effect. Some studies show positive reactions attributable to the placebo effect when treating PTSD. This is a danger to patients treated for cancer or HIV/AIDS, but some psychologists aren’t concerned about the placebo effect when treating mental illness, as long as it produces the desired results.
But even if marijuana offers no benefits to those suffering from PTSD, it should still be an option available for doctors.
There are many PTSD sufferers who use marijuana expecting relief for their symptoms. An estimated 21 per cent of people diagnosed with PTSD self-medicate, often in place of professional help.
If marijuana is actively harmful for PTSD treatment, then we should allow people to talk about it with their doctor. If marijuana were approved to treat PTSD, then patients would be incentivized to pursue this option to avoid paying taxes on the recreational marijuana they would otherwise use.
Patients will be given guidance on how to properly administer something they were already going to use. They will have their progress monitored by a healthcare professional, mitigating the risks associated with marijuana and mental health conditions.
Even better, patients can be pointed towards other, more universally accepted treatments for PTSD like therapy — the most widely supported method of treatment. Patients who come in looking for medical marijuana can be directed to therapy, but only if the incentive to seek treatment exists.
This is crucially important. The same study that reported that 21 per cent of PTSD sufferers self medicate also reported an increased risk of suicide among those who self-medicate with drugs other than alcohol. No matter the reason these patients go into the doctor’s office, they will report their symptoms to someone who can direct them to the help they need.
The highest priority of policymakers should be to make it as easy as possible for patients suffering from PTSD to be treated successfully, and the most effective way to do this is by expanding the options available to patients. More information on the efficacy of marijuana to treat PTSD will become available if the CARERS act is passed. But before a more robust body of evidence exists, those who have their symptoms alleviated, no matter how few in number, should have access to a treatment that works for them.
Daniel Takash is a Young Voices Advocate studying Applied Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University.