Marijuana and PTSD: How Cannabis Can Treat or Trigger PTSD

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. Many people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) turn to marijuana to reduce their symptoms, which might include paranoia and severe anxiety.

A report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stated that nearly 2 out of 10 people with PTSD use marijuana. But is marijuana and PTSD a safe combination? Can the drug ease or exacerbate symptoms of the disorder?

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Many people who deal with anxiety disorders, like PTSD, use marijuana for various reasons. For example, combat veterans might use the drug to ease anxious or irritable feelings caused by war. Meanwhile, survivors of assault may smoke cannabis to reduce their traumatic memories.

Can people use marijuana for PTSD? In the short-term, the drug can relieve tension. However, marijuana remains an addictive substance that can compromise or worsen a person’s physical and psychological health.

Marijuana includes THC and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the ingredient in the cannabis plant primarily responsible for producing euphoric feelings. Conversely, CBD is a nonpsychoactive ingredient that blocks the effects of THC.

Medical marijuana, which is legal in some states, comprises low amounts of THC and high levels of CBD. Because medical marijuana lowers the chances that a person experiences euphoria, many people with PTSD use this form of the drug to reduce their symptoms.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs examined the effectiveness of medical marijuana in reducing symptoms of PTSD. The results found that patients with PTSD experienced a 75-percent decrease in their symptoms upon using medical cannabis. However, researchers concluded that more evidence must be presented to determine the efficacy of medical marijuana for PTSD.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a federal agency that offers health care services to eligible military veterans at medical centers and outpatient facilities throughout the United States.

The VA is mandated to follow federal regulations regarding marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, which makes the drug illegal on a federal level. As a result, the VA does not recommend marijuana as a treatment for veterans.

The VA will not deny veterans their benefits if they use marijuana. However, marijuana use is prohibited at all VA medical centers, including facilities located in states where marijuana is legal.

In 2018, congressional Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Tim Walz of Minnesota introduced House Resolution 5520. If approved by Congress, the bill requires that the VA conduct and support research on the effectiveness of certain forms of marijuana for veterans enrolled in VA facilities.

Many people with PTSD use marijuana to reduce sleep problems. However, a 2015 report published in The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders indicated that marijuana can cause long-term sleep problems in people with PTSD. Sleep disorders can cause or worsen drug use.

Marijuana does not cure PTSD. While the drug may temporarily relieve symptoms, the root of the problem typically remains. In some instances, symptoms become more intense once the effects of marijuana diminish.

Because it is a sedative, marijuana can relieve tension and anxiety in some individuals. As a result, self-medicating with cannabis is common among people with PTSD. Some people with anxiety disorders say that the drug helps them deal with problems associated with traumatic experiences, like anger and chronic stress.

However, self-medicating with marijuana can lead to drug dependence or addiction. A marijuana use disorder causes people to compulsively seek the substance despite knowing the health, social and legal consequences of these actions. Marijuana addiction is a brain disorder that might require treatment to handle.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that self-medicating with marijuana for anxiety problems can increase a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder. According to the report, a dependence on or addiction to marijuana caused by self-medication can also lead to the development of social phobias.

People who live with co-occurring mental health disorders, like PTSD and marijuana addiction, struggle to complete everyday tasks. They might have difficulties maintaining responsibilities at work, home or school.

Individuals who experience PTSD and marijuana abuse typically rely on the drug to get through the day. It provides them with short-term relief. However, marijuana can impair a person’s ability to interact with family members and can cause mood swings. Many people with PTSD who consistently use marijuana experience long-term mental health problems.

People with PTSD and marijuana addiction should seek treatment for both disorders. Treating one disorder without addressing the other could lead to a recurrence of substance use or worsening mental health problems.

Medical marijuana is not used on its own to treat PTSD. People who undergo treatment for PTSD typically participate in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to better manage their symptoms.

In addition to CBT, other psychotherapy options that can be used as treatments for PTSD include exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Anti-anxiety medications may also be used to alleviate stress and anxiety. However, many anti-anxiety drugs, like Xanax, are addictive.

Some key points to remember about marijuana and PTSD:

  • Many people with PTSD turn to marijuana for anxiety relief
  • PTSD increases a person’s risk of developing marijuana addiction
  • The VA does not allow marijuana use on their properties
  • Co-occurring disorders involving PTSD and marijuana addiction can be treated using a combination of psychotherapies and FDA-approved medications

  • If you experience PTSD and grapple with suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The hotline offers 24/7 support for people in distress, including those who deal with PTSD. All calls are free and confidential.

    If you use marijuana and think that you may be dependent on the drug, take The Recovery Village’s marijuana addiction self-assessment quiz. The assessment can help you learn more about your marijuana use and whether it is negatively affecting your life.

    If you or someone you know experiences co-occurring disorders, contact The Recovery Village today. An admission representative can provide you with information about treatment and how it can help you better manage your mental health and substance use disorders.

    Marijuana and PTSD: How Cannabis Treats or Triggers PTSD
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