Medical Marijuana and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder


  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that will affect nearly 1 in 10 individuals in their lifetime
  • Evidence shows that current treatments provide little to no relief
  • Research shows that medical marijuana can help with sleep, pain, anxiety and stress
  • Only 2 studies have been conducted on medical marijuana and PTSD
  • Both studies suggest that medical marijuana may be an effective treatment for PTSD
  • Researchers face a lack of funding and government support in conducting further studies – Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe type of anxiety disorder that will affect between 8 to 9% of Canadians and Americans at some point in their lives. Like most mental illnesses, PTSD has been strongly linked with an increased risk of substance abuse, including marijuana. Experts believe that patients with PTSD may be more likely to use marijuana to self-medicate or cope with their trauma-related symptoms.

Yet, despite the link between PTSD and increased use of marijuana, very few studies have set out to determine whether medical marijuana may in fact be an effective treatment for PTSD.

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD can affect anyone who experiences a traumatic event. Image source

Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by the development of specific symptoms following exposure to an event of extreme traumatic stress. The event usually involves personal experiences of actual or threatened death, serious harm or injury of another person, which is often a family member or close friend.

Although most people think of army veterans when they think of PTSD, the majority of PTSD sufferers actually belong to the general population. Besides military causalities, PTSD can be related to events such as physical or sexual abuse, traffic or natural disasters and domestic violence.

There are many symptoms that define PTSD, including persistent recollections or re-experiences of the original event (ie. nightmares and flashbacks), numbing and avoidance, and increased agitation. The experience of these symptoms leads to a disruption in daily functioning.

While the underlying causes of PTSD are unknown, experts believe that PTSD results from a complicated set of factors. PTSD causes a change in the body’s natural response to stress and affects the stress hormones and chemicals that carry information throughout the nervous system.

A wide array of medications are commonly prescribed for the treatment of PTSD and it is usual for patients to be on a treatment regime involving numerous pharmaceuticals. However, recent studies conducted by the American Medical Association and the National Academies have found that the vast majority of currently prescribed medications provide little to no benefit for patients.

How Can Marijuana Help?

Anecdotal reports of medical marijuana providing relief for patients with PTSD have led researchers to investigate the endocannabinoid system as a therapeutic target for the treatment of this disorder. The endocannabinoid system appears to be a promising target due to evidence of its role in the regulation of sleep, pain, anxiety, and stress.

A review of the medical literature surrounding PTSD and medical marijuana reveals only 2 previous studies. In 2009, Canadian researchers found that administration of nabilone (synthetic THC) was able to either abolish or greatly reduce the nightmares experienced by patients with PTSD that persisted despite the use of conventional treatments.

Another study published in 2011 by researchers in Israel showed that administration of the synthetic cannabinoid WIN552212-2 was able to reverse the behavioral and neurological abnormalities that resulted from stress exposure in rat models of PTSD. The researchers found that, after exposure to a stressful event, the group of rats that received the cannabinoid treatments did not develop symptoms of PTSD, whereas the group of rats that were left untreated did.

Clinical Applications

While researchers continue to voice their support for further research of medical marijuana and PTSD, very little progress has been made towards conducting clinical trials. A lack of funding and government support seem to be the most prominent barriers that scientists face in pursuing this line of research.

In 2011, an effort by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) – a non-profit research organization – to conduct a clinical trial involving medical marijuana and patients with PTSD was approved by the FDA, only to be blocked by a US federal agency a few months later.

It’s no surprise to anyone that conflicts between the government and scientific research continue to hamper the advancement of medical marijuana research. Yet, it remains difficult to justify why patients with disorders such as PTSD must continue to suffer without access to treatments that have demonstrated so much promise.

Leave a Comment