Marijuana was vilified in the early twentieth century in a campaign that began with a few concerned citizens and culminated in the government listing it as a Schedule 1 drug. The government made the listing in the ’70s and considers the plant to have no medicinal qualities. However, recent research on both tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, the two primary components of the plant, has indicated that both have medicinal effects. These compounds mimic chemicals that occur naturally in the brain, although they trigger reactions in the brain that are more powerful than those of their natural counterparts. Marijuana is effective in the treatment of glaucoma and has found use as an appetite stimulant for individuals that suffer from eating disorders. Additionally, cannabis is often used by late-stage cancer and AIDS patients to manage pain.
The plant itself has been cultivated by humanity for thousands of years, and both the ancient Greeks and the Chinese used it medicinally. Despite this, several modern organizations have steadfastly rallied against its use, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
However, even as these organizations protest the legalization of the plant in states like Colorado and Washington, some patients of Dravet syndrome are using it to live relatively normal lives for the first time. Dravet syndrome is a crippling form of epilepsy that most often manifests in the first few years of life. Individuals suffering from Dravet may experience dozens of seizures a day.
CDB oil, derived from cannabidiol, has been shown to reduce the seizures significantly, although doctors are not sure why this occurs. Research is ongoing, but already some doctors have written prescriptions for children as young as five years old. Popular medical marijuana outfit The Stanley Brothers has brought to market a strain of marijuana specifically designed to combat the symptoms of Dravet syndrome. The strain, dubbed Charlotte’s Web, after Dravet sufferer Charlotte Figi, is incapable of generating a high but is rich in cannabidiol.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is characterized by intense flashbacks, bouts of depression and chronic anxiety. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20% of returning troops suffer from PTSD. The condition makes it extremely difficult to reintegrate into society, and in rare conditions, it can cause soldiers to commit acts of aggression. Naturally, PTSD doesn’t just affect soldiers, however. The condition can affect anyone who lives through a sufficiently traumatic event. Children under the age of 10 have a higher resistance to PTSD than the rest of the population, and women are slightly more likely to suffer from PTSD than men.
Current medications for the condition are based around serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but these drugs often have serious side effects. The only two such drugs approved by the FDA, Zoloft and Paxil, both list hallucinations and insomnia as potential side effects. Additional side effects include stiff muscles, weight loss, dizziness, decreased sex drive and headaches. Other potential medicines for PTSD include sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine and venlafaxine. However, all of these drugs have severe side effects as well. Furthermore, these drugs minimize the biological effects of the disorder but do not treat its cause.
While the compounds within cannabis are unlikely to treat the root cause of PTSD either, there is hope that it can minimize the symptoms of the disorder without the negative side effects. Spurred on by a growing body of anecdotal evidence, researchers at the University of Arizona have been seeking approval for a trial since 2011. To date, there have been no controlled studies of how marijuana affects PTSD.
The university received approval from the FDA in 2011, but the proposal stagnated until 2014, when the Public Health Service approved the study. Now, the university faces another hurdle: the Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA, part of the Justice Department, has the final say in whether the study will see the light of day or not because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. Although the Obama administration has made it clear that they would not stand in the way of Congress rescheduling the drug, the DEA has stated that it will resist rescheduling in any way it can. This is unsurprising given that the agency’s mandate is to prevent the trafficking and use of Schedule 1 substances. Time will tell how this conflict within the US government will play out, but with any luck, a marijuana-derived treatment for PTSD will hit pharmacies within a few years.