By Emily Fata
A highly anticipated study slated to test the efficacy of marijuana on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is still in limbo, despite a recent announcement that the National Institute of Drug Administration is ready to supply the researchers with the marijuana that they need.
According to Dr. Sue Sisley, a clinical psychiatrist and lead researcher on this study, NIDA has only prepared three of the four phenotypes needed for her research. Veterans seeking information on the efficacy, side effects, and optimal doses of marijuana strains with varying levels of THC and CBD will just have to keep waiting.
The dilatory nature of launching this study reflects a greater issue haunting the cannabis industry—the National Institute of Drug Association’s monopoly on producing cannabis for federally approved research projects. Since 1968, NIDA has collaborated exclusively with the University of Mississippi to grow cannabis for its studies, repeatedly denying applications from other academic and private institutions seeking a license to cultivate the plant for research purposes.
Despite public criticism, NIDA’s parent organization, the National Institute of Health, has only underscored its commitment to this questionable partnership, issuing a $68MM grant to the University of Mississippi’s research lab on March 23, 2015.
“They’re throwing money at a really bad model,” said Sisley, who received permission from the federal government for her study in March of 2014, but still hasn’t been able to launch due to the university’s delay on cannabis production. “There are so many other growers that have all of the strains that we need.”
Sisley noted that if American-based researchers were permitted to import cannabis from Israel or Canada, her study would already be underway. She even traveled to Israel earlier this year to investigate the possibility of launching a parallel study.
Sisley gained notoriety in the press last year after being terminated from her position as a clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona after proposing to test marijuana as a means of treatment for patients with PTSD. She determined the need for the study after noting that many of her patients—military veterans from Korea, Vietnam and Iraq—were self-medicating with marijuana purchased on the black market.
“Initially, I was highly dubious but I was hearing reports from super conservative veterans who had never taken drugs or used alcohol in their lives,” said Sisley. “We have a duty to veterans to study it in a controlled environment … to put it through the rigor and provide some objective data.”
Many military veterans have turned to marijuana with trepidation, conflicted about its illegality but desperate after failed results from addictive prescription opiates and synthetic THC medications, like Marisol. Matt Kahl, a veteran who returned from Afghanistan with spinal injuries and severe PTSD, had been taking 15-20 prescription pills per day at one point, many of which were exacerbating his symptoms.
“I’ve been prescribed almost every opiate on the market,” said Kahl. “They were causing almost everything that I was trying to prevent. PTSD gives you feelings of anger, rage, fear, anxiety—you’re always looking for a threat in any public situation.” Kahl moved from North Carolina to Colorado in 2013 after being introduced to marijuana by a former high school friend, explaining that he had to get off of the pharmaceuticals to save his life.
The lack of data on this subject is likely preventing PTSD from being added to the list of eligible conditions in new medical marijuana markets. Illinois and Nevada are permitting conditions with physical side effects, like epilepsy and cancer, but do not consider PTSD or any other mental illness as eligible conditions for medical marijuana treatment. New York and Florida, two states currently shaping medical marijuana regulations, do not plan to add PTSD to their respective lists of eligible conditions either.
Kahl co-founded the non-profit Grow4Vets in 2014, with the belief that providing veterans with marijuana as medicine is as critical for society at large as it is for individual veterans. “When a child has an epileptic fit, although it’s heartbreaking, they’re not putting anyone else in danger,” Kahl said. “There are some vets out there that are unstable. Marijuana works for PTSD—we know it from a lot of anecdotal reports. But there have been no peer reviews or double blind or triple blind studies. We absolutely need to get the scientific data.”