Can Marijuana Ease PTSD? A Debate Brews Scientists say there needs to be more research to prove marijuana can ease PTSD symptoms. Activists counter that the federal government has blocked research and won't let the VA prescribe it. Veteran Paul Culkin, who grows marijuana in his garage in New Mexico, says small doses relieve his anxiety.
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Can Marijuana Ease PTSD? A Debate Brews

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Can Marijuana Ease PTSD? A Debate Brews

Can Marijuana Ease PTSD? A Debate Brews

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POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name of the federal agency is the Department of Veterans Affairs.


Some veterans want to use marijuana to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but the Veterans Administration says no. Even though some states have legalized medical marijuana, pot possession remains illegal under federal law. The VA says as a federal agency, its doctors cannot recommend using it.

New Mexico is one of the states that allows medical marijuana, and out of the 1,600 medical marijuana patients there, a quarter of them have PTSD. NPR's Jeff Brady talked to one of them, outside Albuquerque.

JEFF BRADY: Paul Culkin traces his PTSD back to 2004. He was in Kosovo and part of an Army bomb squad. A car crashed into a business. The manager was inside, trying to put out a fire. Culkin went in once to try and convince him to leave, but he wouldn't go.

Mr. PAUL CULKIN (Veteran, United States Army): The second time when I went in to get him out of there, that's when the car bomb exploded and then the blast hit me, all the shrapnel.

BRADY: Culkin recovered from his physical wounds. But years later, the trauma of that moment can come back without warning.

Mr. CULKIN: I know it sounds strange, but sometimes you'll see a car that's just not in the right place, and it'll send me back to that thinking that it could possibly be a car bomb - regardless of where I am, you know, and Im sitting in Albuquerque.

BRADY: Culkin started avoiding social situations and was quick to anger. He says the Veterans Administration treatment has helped. There's counseling and antidepressants. But he says marijuana also works well to relieve his anxiety.

To be legal in New Mexico, he had to go outside the VA system, and pay for another doctor and a psychiatrist to recommend him for the state's medical marijuana program. Then he spent more than $1,500 to set up a small grow room in his garage.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. CULKIN: These are my vegetating plants right here. We've got some Sour Lifesaver and some Mandala Number One.

BRADY: Culkin says he doesn't usually smoke the marijuana, instead choosing to dissolve an extract in hot chocolate or tea so he can control the dose better.

His wife, Victoria, is convinced it works.

Ms. VICTORIA CULKIN: He's a different person. He's a better person. He's more open. He's more communicative. Sorry, honey, but at one point, we almost got a divorce. And I can honestly say, I think medical cannabis saved our marriage and our family.

BRADY: Anecdotal evidence such as this hasn't swayed the VA so far, though. In a written statement, the agency says government lawyers have advised that if a VA doctor were to complete a state medical marijuana form, that would violate the Federal Controlled Substances Act.

Meanwhile, there are still questions about marijuana's effectiveness, especially in the medical community. Dr. David Spiegel heads the Stanford Center on Stress and Health.

Dr. DAVID SPIEGEL (Director, Stanford Center on Stress and Health): There is no solid evidence that cannabinoids, that marijuana, is in itself an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. And before anyone can claim that, there needs to be some more solid research on that topic.

BRADY: Spiegel says recovery from trauma begins with the victim regaining control, both over both their body and their mental reaction to the traumatic event. Spiegel says smoking marijuana could make that more difficult.

Dr. SPIEGEL: The last thing you want is to be losing control at a time when you're remembering an event in which you lost control.

BRADY: Back in New Mexico, Paul Culkin says he doesn't use marijuana to a level that he loses control. Culkin's experience has turned him into an activist. He started an informal patients group, and he has a message for skeptics.

Mr. CULKIN: There is a difference between medical cannabis and what you did back in college. And you know, there's what you're smoking in the dorm room and, you know, listening to Pink Floyd is not what medical cannabis is about.

BRADY: And this is where arguments around marijuana and PTSD start running in circles. Scientists say more research is needed. Activists counter that the federal government has blocked research because marijuana is illegal. The American Medical Association has called for controlled studies to settle this and other questions about the effectiveness of marijuana.

Meantime, policymakers in states with medical marijuana programs have to make decisions now, and they're reaching different conclusions. While New Mexico found there's enough evidence to approve marijuana use for PTSD, next door in Colorado, lawmakers recently rejected a proposal to do the same.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Money" by Pink Floyd)

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