Frank Sinatra: Why do you drink so much?
Dean Martin: I drink to forget.
Sinatra: Forget what?
Martin: I don’t know. I forgot that a long time ago.
The quest for an elixir that can relieve us of the burden of memory from a bad childhood and more is a longstanding one. Delivered at the swinging-60s crest of the Rat Pack era, when high-functioning alcoholism was regarded more as an aspirational lifestyle than a debilitating disease, Frankie and Dino’s exchange suggested one possible answer. But the promise of booze as a soothing balm of forgetfulness is mostly a delusion. Alcohol works with what you give it: If you are fixated and depressed when you start drinking, odds are you’ll just end up a fixated, depressed drunk.
Of course, it’s true that if you drink enough, you’ll black out. But that’s not forgetting, more like targeted oblivion.
Marijuana, on the other hand, has been shown to play a role in producing, sustaining, and—most important here—dulling traumatic memories. The science is still in its infancy, but it offers great promise for helping people anxiety disorders, like post traumatic stress.
Anecdotally, there’s been plenty of evidence that cannabis helps ease the symptoms of PTSD. But it wasn’t quantified until 2014. That’s when a study conducted in New Mexico on PTSD sufferers reported that cannabis use reduced symptoms by an average of 75 percent. The study itself acknowledges that this figure might be exaggerated, but, even accounting for bias, it’s an impressive result.
Another study from 2014 may provide a neurological explanation for this mitigation. [Trigger warning: contains scenes of rat-directed sadism.]
Researchers at the University of Haifa attempted to induce PTSD in lab rats, first by shocking their tiny, pink feet and then by following up on ensuring days with “trauma reminders”—which are probably not something that makes a pleasant ping! as it flashes a text box across your smartphone screen. Predictably, the distressed rodents began to exhibit classic PTSD symptoms, including jumpiness, avoidance, “impaired plasticity” in the brain’s reward center, and a tendency to hang out by the methadone clinic with a dude named Rico.
Here’s the interesting point: Similarly traumatized rats that were injected with synthetic cannabinoids did not present these symptoms. In fact, these rats responded even better than a control group that was given Zoloft, an antidepressant often prescribed for PTSD. And it wasn’t just because they were too high to care. Something in the cannabinoids actually prevented their brains from altering in response the repeated stress. In other words, the rats remembered the trauma; it just didn’t fuck them up.
Recently, researchers from the University of Colorado have cleared the last regulatory hurdle for what will be to date the most comprehensive—and, at $2 million, the most well-funded—clinical trial of cannabis on PTSD. There’s every reason for optimism. But we’ll have to curb our enthusiasm: The results are not expected until 2019.