UBCO to study marijuana as PTSD treatment


The University of British Columbia Okanagan (UCBO) and Tilray, a Health Canada-licensed producer of medicinal marijuana, will team up in a study to treat veterans, first responders, and sexual assault victims with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tilray employs over 200 Canadians from its location in Nanaimo and, pending regulatory approval, will provide multiple strains of marijuana to participants for the study in summer 2015.

The study aims to lessen symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, and depression with marijuana as an alternative to pharmaceuticals and expensive therapy sessions.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association’s manual for diagnosing mental disorders added recurrent traumatic events to the criteria for causes of PTSD. These events include situations police officers and first responders experience that, over time, prevent their brain from functioning normally because of constant mental and emotional stress on the job.

Local paramedic Cassandra Loveless has dealt with PTSD for the past 11 months after a buildup of tragic emergency calls, and knows the effects of the disorder all too well.

“I’ll go into a grocery store and I can’t make a decision [about what to buy]. And it’s not that I don’t want to or anything—I can’t physically make a decision,” Loveless said.

Most don’t think twice about throwing groceries in their basket, but in moments like these, Loveless breaks down and questions her sanity. After almost a year of exposure therapy and leave from work, Loveless does not fight the disorder—she adapts to it. “It never really goes away, you just learn to deal with it,” she said.

Although traditional treatment has helped Loveless adjust to life with PTSD, Zach Walsh, a UBCO associate professor of psychology and the head investigator of the study, wishes to explore more treatment options.

“There is anecdotal evidence of veterans using cannabis, and this study help[s] to address the gap in the science with a clinical study,” Walsh said in an interview on Jan. 12.

According to Walsh, his team will train participants to take the substance through vaporizers, a non-smoke method of ingestion. The study’s ultimate goal is to use the substance in a healthy manner in the hopes that the data will help physicians with informed decisions about treatment options.

Many people with PTSD choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which dulls symptoms in the short term, but has other detrimental long-term health effects such as addiction.

When asked about the prospect of participants becoming dependent on marijuana, Walsh responded, “There is withdrawal syndrome and we’ll watch for it, but its certainly not as bad as with opiates, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds. We are conscious, but not overly concerned.”

More information about the study can be found on UBCO’s news website.