Scientists Explain Why Many With PTSD Turn To Cannabis

Experts believe cannabis may help patients with PTSD manage their sleep problems.
Oct 22, 2015

As a substance abuse specialist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Marcel Bonn-Miller, Ph.D has spent years studying cannabis use among patients in California.

In his work, he’s noticed that a significant portion of patients who visit marijuana dispensaries suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And these patients seem to find marijuana useful for a variety of symptoms.

“Generally, we’re finding that people with PTSD are primarily using cannabis to cope… To cope with a bunch of different things.”

“But there hasn’t been a whole lot of documentation of it,” he told us. “This was one of the first studies to really document that people with PTSD appear to be using (cannabis) to cope, and it seems like they are primarily using to cope with sleep problems.”

In a study published last month in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Dr. Bonn-Miller and his colleagues administered surveys to PTSD patients from a local dispensary to find out what exactly they were using cannabis for. Sleep, it seemed, was the primary reason.

Dr. Bonn-Miller explains that sleep problems are a big component of PTSD. Patients might have problems falling asleep or have trouble staying asleep throughout the night. Nightmares are also common.

“And so people are finding, it seems, that marijuana, at least on the front end, is helpful for them in terms of dealing with those symptoms. So it helps them go to sleep more quickly, it helps them sleep through the night rather than wake up, and things like that.”

His latest findings support sleep as the primary motivation of PTSD patients who self-medicate with cannabis. An important point is that patients with worse sleep tend to use cannabis more frequently.

But Dr. Bonn-Miller says while cannabis seems to help in the short-term, other studies suggest that it’s effectiveness may diminish in the long run. Using cannabis for sleep can also lead to dependency, he adds.

Dr. Bonn-Miller admits he’s not aware of any studies that have compared cannabis to other sleep aids, something that he believes needs to be done. Marijuana’s potential to help other symptoms of PTSD, such as overcoming painful memories, has also never been studied in a clinical setting.

“There are hurdles to that kind of research,” he says.

But until such research is done, the true potential of cannabis for PTSD remains uncertain.

“We’re not pushing to say one way or another that cannabis is bad or cannabis is good,” Dr. Bonn-Miller says. “The purpose of this is just to document what is going on and whether there are alternatives to help people not be reliant on it all the time.”

The study received funding from the VA Clinical Science Research and Development, the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center, the Health Services Research and Development Service, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

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