How Drug War Posturing Is Blocking Access To A Potential Treatment For Veterans

Think Progress
Nicole Flatow

Originally appearing here.

Veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have long reported anecdotally that marijuana provides unique relief for their symptoms, but past attempts to perform scientific studies have foundered because access to a legal supply of marijuana is blocked by federal agencies. A new study released this week averted this obstacle in a brain imaging study that did not require a marijuana supply, and concluded that cannabis may mitigate the flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and other symptoms that plague PTSD sufferers. Medical Daily reports:

A new study by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine and their collaborators across the U.S. suggests that there is a connection between the number of cannabinoid receptors in the brain and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to an NYU press release.

Cannabinoid receptors, or CB1 receptors, are part of a large system of chemicals and signaling pathways from the brain to the body, NYU says. They play a role in the formation of memories, and in transmitting messages about appetite, pain, and mood to the body. Studies have shown that certain chemicals, like cannabis, can combine with naturally produced neurotransmitters to activate CB1 receptors, which in turn can impair memory and reduce anxiety. [“]

“There’s not a single pharmacological treatment out there that has been developed specifically for PTSD,” said lead author and NYU researcher Alexander Neumeister in the statement. “That’s a problem. There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as antidepressant simply do not work.” In fact, he added, anecdotal evidence has shown that some PTSD sufferers who use marijuana, a cannabinoid, experience more symptom relief than with antidepressants.

The reason researchers were able to link their brain research to marijuana is because it contains its own cannabinoids, which can and have been isolated to medically treat individuals with neurological disorders. This study, conducted by a major medical institution and published in a reputable scientific journal, is groundbreaking. But it also reinforces the loss to the medical and scientific communities from federal government resistance to support research on the drug.

If clinicians want to actually know how marijuana works, they will have to conduct studies using marijuana. Legal access to marijuana is controlled by one federal agency with a mission to combat drug abuse. A panel made up of representatives from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Health and Human Services must approve a proposal for legal marijuana access. In 2011, a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine who specializes in treating veterans designed a triple-blind study to test marijuana that earned approval by the Food and Drug Administration. But when Dr. Sue Sisley requested marijuana from the panel, they turned back her request, providing a range of contradictory and confusing justifications that are difficult if not impossible for Sisley to address in a subsequent request, and effectively block access to the drug for this study.

Studies like this one are needed not just to put scientific backing behind the anecdotes and to better adjust prescriptions of the substance to the some 30 percent of veterans who suffer from PTSD. They are also crucial to disputing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I dangerous drug with no currently accepted medical use, and Congress’ position that marijuana is illegal even for medical purposes. In 2011, the DEA once again refused to reschedule marijuana, citing an absence of rigorous study, and a federal appeals court declined to disturb that ruling. Plaintiffs argued that it is precisely the Schedule I designation that prevents the funding and marijuana access needed to perform larger-scale studies. The Schedule I designation ” more severe than the designations for cocaine and opium poppy ” also means the federal government recognizes no sanctioned use for the substance in spite of 19 state medical marijuana laws, and prescriptions cannot be written for marijuana.

Another study released just this month found that inhaled marijuana can abate Crohn’s disease symptoms in those who did not respond to conventional treatments. According to a 2011 survey performed in Canada and the United Kingdom, some half of Crohn’s disease patients use medical marijuana to treat their symptoms. The primary prescription drugs used to treat this disorder can cost $25,000 a year without insurance, and vary in effectiveness. This study was conducted in Israel, where medical marijuana research is encouraged by the government.
Think Progress reports about the results from a new study conducted at New York University measuring the connection between the number of cannabinoid receptors in the brain and the effects of PTSD while highlighting other recent research. The article also details the government interference that is preventing scientists from accessing the legal supply of marijuana to be used for research purposes.