As Vets Demand Cannabis for PTSD, Science Races to Unlock Its Secrets
Elvis Alonzo began smoking cannabis as a last resort. Three years in the Marine Corps and 13 years with the Glendale Police Department in Arizona—where he was exposed to murders, suicides and people dying in his arms—had left him emotionally crippled.* Toward the end of his police service, doctors diagnosed Alonzo with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed various medications to temper his nightmares and flashbacks. The drugs “turned me into a zombie,” he says. “I was so out of it that I couldn’t even drive, so they (the police department) had to medically retire me.” Alonzo stopped showering. His wife left him, and he nearly lost his house. Then a friend suggested he try marijuana to relieve his symptoms. “It’s been a godsend,” he says. “It curbs my anxiety, and it makes me sleep fantastic for at least four hours. It needs to be studied.”
Thousands of military veterans have echoed Alonzo’s claim for years. They have pressured federal and state legislators to legalize medicinal cannabis and ease rules on research into the plant’s apparent therapeutic properties, arguing that it could help reduce suicide rates among former soldiers. Backed by overwhelming public support for broader legalization, their demands are starting to resonate in statehouses across the country. This past November, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose Veterans Day to make PTSD a qualifying condition for the state’s tightly controlled medical marijuana program. New York joined seven other states this year—and 27 overall—that include PTSD in their lists of conditions that qualify for medical cannabis.
But some cannabis researchers—while acknowledging the urgency of finding better PTSD treatments—remain skeptical of legalizing too quickly and warn that marijuana’s pharmacological properties remain largely unknown. Still, scientists have long been focusing on two of the plant’s more than 120 active compounds as possible treatments for PTSD symptoms. They are looking at tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the plant's principal psychoactive ingredient, and cannabidiol, or CBD, which is non-intoxicating and has drawn interest for possible medical applications. Concentrations of both can vary widely between different genetic lines of cannabis, and even between individual plants.
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