Vets Say Marijuana Treats PTSD, but Their Doctors Can't Prescribe It

Military veterans nationwide want those diagnosed with PTSD to be able to get a VA doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana.

7-8% of the nation’s population will have PTSD at some point in their lifetime, estimate researchers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.


PTSD develops after a person experiences, or is a witness to, a life-threatening or traumatic event — a natural disaster, for example — or is exposed to combat, or sexual or physical abuse. Symptoms can include and range from anxiety, insomnia and hypervigilance, to struggling with disturbing memories, or managing emotions and behaviors.

In a YouTube video, titled, U.S. Vets with PTSD Smoke Weed, military veterans, seated next to one another detail the pain of living with PTSD. The clip has already attracted nearly two million views. Off camera, a man asks the group about PTSD.

With his eyes downcast, one man, wearing an Army t-shirt, weighs in first, “The anxiety is there, and I’ve come to peace after this many years of dealing with therapy, that it’s never going to completely go away,” he said. Dan, seated in the middle, offers, “I just kinda check out sometimes,” his hands folded, resting on the table. “Posttraumatic stress disorder, is, a fucking thorn in my side,” veteran number three finally sums up his experience.

Marijuana cigarettes are on display at the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum (DEA) in Arlington, Virginia. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

One sunny afternoon, a year after Air Force veteran Colleen Bushnell told military authorities that she had been sexually assaulted, allegedly by a fellow service member, Bushnell was in southern California to visit a friend. Clouds plucked from a marshmallow bag hung low from the cerulean sky, while the ocean’s waves crashed along the shore. The fresh air, cool breeze and the bed of Bushnell’s friend beckoned her weary body and mind; it was time to relax.

In 2004, Bushnell, was diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder stemming from the attack. A dizzying array of treatments are available for people, diagnosed with PTSD, from cognitive and behavioral therapies to prescription drug treatments, and holistic or alternative remedies, including medical marijuana.  

When Bushnell arrived at her friend’s California home, she hadn’t slept in more than two days. Her friend, who was also a military veteran, had been severely injured in Afghanistan, and suggested Bushnell use edible cannabis. “I had never used marijuana.  I’m very much against using illegal substances,” recalled Bushnell. “I’m a mother and want to set a good example, but for the first time in years, I could sleep and for a moment, there was no [emotional] pain.”

There is now a clear majority of states that have comprehensive medical marijuana laws on the books - 28 states, plus the District of Columbia, according to Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority, a 501c3 public education non-profit, medical marijuana advocacy organization. He says, in many of those states, PTSD is a qualifier to legally obtain medical marijuana, but military veterans diagnosed with PTSD, and whose medical care is provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), face unique challenges.  

“The VA’s policies on medical marijuana are still quite outdated,” said Angell. “Doctors at the VA are not able to make recommendations to use medical marijuana. They’re not allowed to fill out recommendation forms that would allow veterans to use medical marijuana legally under state law,” added Angell.

Sean Azzariti, a veteran of the Iraq war, makes the first legal recreational marijuana purchase in Colorado from advocate Betty Aldworth at the 3-D Denver Discrete Dispensary on January 1, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Theo Stroomer/Getty Images)

The last thing TJ Thompson remembered before waking in a hospital emergency room was approaching the ship he did not want to board. One afternoon, in 2001, following an appointment with his psychiatrist, the Navy sailor was set to return to duty, but as he drove closer to the naval station, his thoughts betrayed him. “I tried to swallow all my pills that I had on the ship and slit my wrists a bunch of times.” Thompson said from his home, near Virginia Beach, Virginia. At the time of his suicide attempt, he was taking daily doses of Zoloft and Gabapentin, for depression and anxiety.

By 2011, Thompson‘s medical providers at the VA medical center where he sought mental health treatment had prescribed a half-dozen other medications: Trazadone, Aripriprazole (Abilify), Loreazapam (Ativan), Citalopram (Celexa), Risperidone (Risperdal) and Divalproex (Depakote). Almost ten years after his first suicide attempt, Thompson tried to take his life again.  

While recovering from his second attempt at suicide, clinicians recommended yet another cocktail of prescription drugs, but Thompson found relief elsewhere. “I had some friends, in the restaurant industry, say, look, you need to get off these pills, and this is how you’re going to do it,” said Thompson. He now uses marijuana multiple times a day.

“My preferred method, [the] way I use it the most, is just smoking it out of a bong,” Thompson said. “For me, on an average day with not a lot of stressors involved, probably every two-and-a-half to three hours,” he continued. “I might just take a couple of hits off of a bong --- It’s probably maybe between a quarter and a half a gram of marijuana.”

The exterior of the Veterans Affairs Hospital is seen in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Dr. Paula Schnurr, the Executive Director of the VA National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder estimates of the nearly twenty-million veterans nationwide, “close to six million” receive their healthcare at VA run medical centers, and approximately 10% of that population are being treated for PTSD. Researchers at the organization have not examined the “overall Veteran population,” but among those using VA medical centers, and diagnosed with PTSD, each year cannabis use is steadily rising.  

Despite the growing popularity and marketing of medical marijuana, Dr. Schnurr says the science hasn’t caught up with the claims of its supporters.  “I’m extremely surprised that people think that the research is there,” said Dr. Schnurr.  “It has been very challenging to do this kind of research on marijuana for any condition, and not just PTSD.”  

She suggests more studies are needed to prop up the claims that marijuana effectively treats PTSD. “What we need in order to say a drug works or a type of psychotherapy works is multiple well-done studies in which people are randomized to treatment, and there’s an appropriate control,” she said. “In drug studies, you need placebo control, and the idea is that in the drug studies that the patients and the clinicians don’t know whether a person is getting drug or placebo. So already for marijuana, it’s challenging to do that work, because of the euphoric effects of most preparations,” added Schnurr.

This summer, Colleen Bushnell, the military sexual assault survivor, who still seeks treatment to address the emotional wounds from the sexual assault, and her fiancée moved from Texas, to Buckeye, Arizona. They wanted to settle in a state where local medical marijuana laws were in their favor. The nation’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers marijuana a Schedule I drug; it is illegal, even for medical use. "It bothers me, that [I’m] still violating federal law,” said Bushnell.

TJ Thompson is advocating for changing the law. “My kids were able to see that progress. They saw me go from being locked in the bedroom all the time, not being able to talk to them without yelling at them,” said Thompson, who is now a culinary chef, “to being successful in my education path, being able to work with people, being able to go and stand in front of the Senate press gallery.”

T.J. Thompson, military veteran and advocate for medical cannabis speaks during a press conference with Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ, to support a new medical marijuana bill at the US Capitol on March 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act would reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug and would amend federal law to allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies.

Despite more than a decade of honorable service in the military, every time he seeks escape from the symptoms surrounding his PTSD and utilizes marijuana, Thompson is considered a criminal. For his children’s sake, it’s a label that carries a heavy burden. “They’ve seen my healing path, so they understand, and they understand that [for me] it is a medicine.”

The DEA announced plans to begin allowing researchers to use marijuana grown outside its facility in Mississippi. Medical marijuana advocates saw it as a step forward, but the federal agency still fell short of supporting a proposal that would remove cannabis from a list of its most dangerous category of narcotics.

“If it treats anxiety and it gives me a moment of peace, I’m all for it,” says the veteran, in the U.S. Vets with PTSD Smoke Weed video. Moments later, after a bong is presented to the three men sitting at the table, one of the veterans grabs a lighter, lights the green glass bong, and then inhales. A cough follows, as the bong is passed to another man in the group. A graphic appears, “5 minutes later,” and the veteran who initially described his life with PTSD as a “thorn in my side,” folds his arms and succinctly details his current state of mind, “I’m happy.”

--

Christina Brown Fisher is an independent multimedia journalist, based in New York City. She is an U.S. Air Force Veteran. Christina is also a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survivor, and has been diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.