Drug abuse researchers were surprised at the outcome of their latest findings regarding cannabis use disorders in veterans with PTSD. Previous research has shown that veterans with PTSD use cannabis more cannabis than veterans without PTSD. Cannabis use is generally classified as a substance use disorder (SUD) or marijuana use disorder for NIDA studies. The NIDA study makes no distinction between legally accessed medical cannabis with a doctor’s supervision and medicine obtained from the black-market. This report makes no distinction between marijuana use disorder that is the result of a court order or voluntary therapy.
The participants of the new study consisted of 202 patients currently admitted to a residential SUD treatment facility with and without PTSD. Participants were administered diagnostic interviews that assessed subjective (measured as “negative affect”) and biological (cortisol levels) reactivity to a personalized trauma cue.
The participants with PTSD at the SUD treatment center demonstrated the highest cortisol levels, a measure of biological stress activity, of any group. There was no difference in cortisol levels between participants with PTSD and “marijuana use disorder” compared to participants without PTSD or “marijuana use disorder.” The participants with PTSD and a marijuana use disorder responded to trauma stimuli like a person without PTSD. Cannabis was associated with modulating the processing of emotional stimulation, a beneficial effect for veterans with PTSD
The study found that veterans with PTSD that use cannabis had less emotional reactivity and fear to traumatic stimuli compared to the group that did not use cannabis. Cannabis was associated with keeping a PTSD survivor calm, cool, and collected when challenged with stimuli intended to exacerbate their PTSD symptoms.
No correlation of significant negative effects between veterans and cannabis has been adequately demonstrated in a research study. The authors of the latest PTSD research suggest that cannabis can modulate the way the brain processes traumatic stimuli in a beneficial way.
Collectively, NIDA’s research suggests that our veterans may inevitably use cannabis after serving a tour of duty and are a higher risk of developing cannabis dependence or use disorders. But development of this so-called “cannabis dependence” or cannabis use disorder is associated with better symptom management of PTSD. Namely, it keeps a person calm and reduces fear when they are repeatedly challenged with trauma.
This study was funded in part by R21 DA030587, awarded to Dr. Tull from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health.