Pubdate: Fri, 25 Mar 2016
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2016 The Associated Press
Author: Ben Finley, The Associated Press


Experts Say It Helps but Can Become Addictive

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A growing number of states are weighing whether 
to legalize marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. But 
for many veterans, the debate is already over.

They're increasingly using cannabis even though it remains illegal in 
most states and is unapproved by the Department of Veterans Affairs 
because major studies have yet to show it is effective for PTSD.

Although the research has been contradictory and limited, some former 
members of the military say pot helps them manage their anxiety, 
insomnia and nightmares. Prescription drugs such as Klonopin and 
Zoloft weren't effective or left them feeling like zombies, some say.

"I went from being an anxious mess to numbing myself with the pills 
they were giving me," said Mike Whiter, a 39-year-old former Marine 
who lives in Philadelphia, where marijuana is illegal. "Cannabis 
helped me get out of the hole I was in. I started to talk to people 
and get over my social anxiety."

Others, though, have seen little benefit from the drug. And the VA 
has documented a troubling rise in the number of PTSD-afflicted 
veterans who have been diagnosed with marijuana dependence, which 
some experts say can hamper recovery from war trauma.

Sally Schindel of Prescott, Arizona, said the VA diagnosed her son, 
Andy Zorn, with PTSD after he served in the Army in Iraq. The agency 
later diagnosed him with marijuana dependence, as well as depression 
and bipolar disorder, she said.

Schindel said her son was using marijuana not for recreation but as 
self-medication, particularly to help him sleep. He killed himself at 
age 31 in 2014, writing in his suicide note that "marijuana killed my 
soul & ruined my brain."

"He told me he found it much harder to quit than he thought it would 
be," Schindel said. "He'd buy it and smoke it and then flush the rest 
of it. The next day he bought it again."

The stories of vets like Zorn and Whiter have helped fuel the debate 
over whether states and the federal government should legalize the 
drug for PTSD treatment. Lawmakers are increasingly sympathizing with 
vets like Whiter, despite the lack of scientific evidence. Although 
some limited studies have shown that marijuana helps people manage 
PTSD symptoms in the short term, another suggested it may make symptoms worse.

Starting with New Mexico in 2009, 10 states have listed PTSD among 
the ailments for which medical marijuana can be prescribed, according 
to the Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to end criminalization 
of the drug. A few more states give doctors broad enough discretion 
to recommend pot to PTSD sufferers.

Similar measures have been introduced in Georgia, Illinois, New 
Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah. In 
November, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment that would allow VA 
doctors to recommend medical marijuana to vets in states where it's 
legal. The proposal failed to pass the House.

Federal law requires randomized, controlled trials to prove that a 
drug is effective before VA doctors can recommend it. Such studies 
are underway, including two funded by Colorado, where the state 
health board held off on legalizing marijuana for PTSD because of the 
lack of major studies.

"There surely is not enough scientific evidence to say marijuana 
helps PTSD," said Marcel Bonn-Miller, a University of Pennsylvania 
professor who is leading the Colorado-backed studies. "But we'll get 
a heck of a lot closer to getting to know the answer in two to three years."

Since 2002, the percentage of PTSD-afflicted veterans who have been 
diagnosed with marijuana dependence has climbed from 13 percent to 
nearly 23 percent, according to VA data released last year. That 
translates to more than 40,000 veterans.

Officially known as "cannabis use disorder," dependence can mean 
someone is unable to sleep or becomes irritable without the drug. It 
can also mean marijuana use has diminished someone's personal 
relationships or ability to hold a job.

Karen Drexler, the VA's deputy national mental health program 
director for addictive disorders, said the potential for dependency 
is yet another reason vets should wait for more research.

"Marijuana may initially provide some relief," but for those with 
PTSD, "it's very hard to stop it once you start it," she said. "It 
gets into this vicious cycle."

She added that the emotion-numbing effects of marijuana can also 
hinder the most effective treatment for PTSD: talk therapy, in which 
veterans try to process the trauma they went through.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom