Medical marijuana could reduce symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety in veterans, if only the government would begin researching the matter.
Last year when bipartisan politicians, veterans, and scientists urged the Department of Veteran Affairs to study what effect cannabis could have on post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. David Shulkin, the VA secretary at the time, rejected the plea. Citing marijuana’s Schedule I drug status, Shulkin wrote in a letter that “federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects.”
Shulkin has since walked back those comments in a new interview with Task & Purpose. The secretary, who was fired via tweet by Donald Trump when Shulkin refused to help the President privatize veteran health care, now believes researching medical marijuana for veterans needs to start immediately.
“I think the time is now,” Shulkin told Task & Purpose, a veteran-focused media company. “I believe that the VA should be involved in research on anything that could potentially help veterans and improve their health and well-being.”
“In particular, with the VA’s focus on suicide as the top priority, people just don’t take their lives because of no reason,” he added. “They take their lives, often because of issues related to chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, and there is growing evidence that medical marijuana—I’m not talking about recreational marijuana—but properly prescribed, may have some real benefits in anxiety improvement, in pain management, and potentially, in the issue of substance abuse.”
According to a National Suicide Report released by the VA last year, at least 20 veterans commit suicide a day. Various studies have demonstrated the potential efficacy of marijuana to treat people with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and stress. A 2013 study published in Journal of Psychoactive Drugs concluded “[c]annabis is associated with reductions in PTSD symptoms in some patients.” In addition, a study published earlier this year found that medical marijuana decreased stress, anxiety, and symptoms associated with depression.
As secretary, Shulkin instead referenced research that indicated marijuana use led to increased risk of suicide as well as symptoms of mania and psychosis. John Hudak of the Brookings Institute claimed the VA had cited faulty research and refused to place these negative-sounding studies in total context. Endorsing medical research did not mean the VA was endorsing marijuana legalization, which Shulkin had conflated in Hudak’s mind. “Conducting basic medical research is important for the advancement of therapies for our veterans and the VA has unique opportunities to advance such efforts,” Hudak wrote.
A year later and removed from office, Shulkin agrees with the assessment. Earlier this year, Dr. Sue Sisley concluded landmark FDA-approved research that closely documented how veterans suffering from PTSD reacted to medical cannabis. The triple-blind study, which means researchers didn’t know the potency of the cannabis to veterans, is expected to be published later this year. Shulkin believes this type of research, which took Dr. Sisley 10 years to complete and lost her a university job, needs to become easier to complete soon.
Said Shulkin, “Marijuana is a controlled substance, so therefore the challenge of doing research with the regulations, and the hoops that you have to go through, are making it too difficult to do for many of the researchers.”