Study marijuana — don’t blindly force Veterans Affairs to prescribe it

Posted on December 10, 2020 View all news

by Kevin Sabet  | July 10, 2020 12:00 AM

The marijuana industry has never shied away from capitalizing on a crisis. Most recently, the Food and Drug Administration has been forced to work overtime in issuing warnings to marijuana companies, claiming their products had the power to prevent or even cure COVID-19.

While these far-fetched and dangerous claims have been shut down by credible scientists, the pot industry is trying to force another narrative that runs counter to an overwhelming amount of research: using marijuana to “treat” veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder.

More than 540,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD, which can lead to depression, anxiety, serious substance abuse, and suicide. Unfortunately, only around 30% of veterans diagnosed with these issues seek professional help. Based on industry activism and a few anecdotes, some 23 states have listed PTSD symptoms as a qualifying condition for “medical” marijuana.

But unfortunately, a slew of research suggests marijuana use could lead to far worse outcomes for those suffering from PTSD and other mental issues.

Recently, a study of more than 300 veterans found that marijuana use exacerbated symptoms of PTSD for those who suffered from a marijuana use disorder. This study builds on a foundation of research, signaling that marijuana use among veterans suffering from symptoms of PTSD could cause worse outcomes.

Adding to this, another recent study published in the journal Depression & Anxiety found marijuana use among military personnel with PTSD symptoms may lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Furthermore, a study published by the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that marijuana-dependent Iraq/Afghanistan-era veterans have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide.

As some 20 veterans die by suicide each day in our country, we need real solutions. As it stands, we could be making this crisis even worse by promoting marijuana use. And this is not the first time research has pointed in this direction, either.

According to the most comprehensive review of marijuana research, conducted by the National Academies of Science, direct associations have been made between the high-frequency use of high potency marijuana and the development of mental health issues including psychosis, depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicidality. Moreover, this review found only limited evidence that marijuana or any of its derivatives could be effective in treating symptoms of PTSD.

Marijuana has not been proven to treat any illness effectively, having failed to pass FDA scrutiny. Some components of marijuana, such as cannabidiol (in the form of a drug called Epidiolex) to treat some specific types of epilepsy and dronabinol (in the form of Marinol), have met FDA standards. This is very different than the hodgepodge of state laws authorizing smoked marijuana and high-THC extracts for virtually any use. In several states, marijuana shops recommend marijuana to vets with virtually no restrictions or regulations.

According to Dr. Rajiv Radhakrishnan of the Yale School of Medicine, there is little evidence showing THC and CBD to be beneficial for sufferers of anxiety and depressive disorders. He also found that, of the handful of studies that purport to show positive developments results from treating PTSD and other mental harms in veterans with marijuana, the majority of were either severely flawed or confounded by limitations such as poor design, poor execution, small population sizes, and a lack of control groups.

Two bills at the federal level focus on this topic, one of which merits support. H.R.712, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research on marijuana and its potential to help vets with issues such as pain and PTSD. This is a laudable approach that puts science first.

Another, H.R.1647, would bypass further research and force VA doctors to prescribe marijuana to veterans. Notably, this bill is sponsored by Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the top congressional recipient of marijuana industry contributions.

All veterans should have a healthy and successful readjustment to civilian life, and we need to do better when it comes to their healthcare. Should there be a place for marijuana’s components or derivatives as a medical treatment, it must be carefully examined — not forced through based on industry marketing materials.

The lives of our nation’s heroes depend upon it.

Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., is a former senior drug policy adviser to the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. He currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

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