How Veterans Are Helping Advance Marijuana-PTSD Research

The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) in Arizona looks like any doctor’s office, but it’s not. SRI is home to a ground-breaking scientific study involving marijuana that could have far-reaching effects.

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Why is this study such an exciting step forward?

Experts say as many as 20%of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to recent estimates, about 22 former members of the Armed Forces, on average, die from suicide every day.

When this study is over, researchers aim to have a definitive answer to the question of whether marijuana effectively treats PTSD.

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This is the first randomized, controlled trial in the world looking at cannabis for PTSD,” said Dr Sue Sisley, the psychiatrist running the study. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to finally answer the question, ‘Does cannabis help with PTSD?’ That’s our goal. That’s why we’ve been fighting so hard to get this underway.”

The battle to launch a study involving marijuana

The study did not move from idea to launch without a bump. The researchers involved struggled for 7 years to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency, and finding funding and a landlord willing to rent them space to conduct the study was incredibly challenging too.

The study launched at a time when veterans have been driving forward a national conversation on medical marijuana. The American Legion has attempted to apply political pressure to support this research, and yet researchers are still fighting through potential setbacks.

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Participants are hard to find in any trial, but in this trial there has been gatekeeping to contend with too. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore dropped out of the study in March, transferring their half of the work to the small team in Phoenix. Meanwhile, the veterans’ administration is not allowing researchers to recruit volunteers at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, citing federal law.

How could this marijuana study have been more efficient?

The first veteran was enrolled on the 3rd February this year. As of May 23rd, researchers had received calls from 1,300 veterans looking to volunteer. Of those, 200 went through telephone screenings and 16 were enrolled.

Those numbers, like in the case of so many trials, look decidedly inefficient.

That bottleneck from receiving calls to telephone screenings shows a huge shortfall. Making the leap forward and innovating further is an option that these researchers may want to think about for future studies. Using data from electronic health records (EHRs), we are able to remove the screening bottleneck, recruit a representative sample, and improve efficiency through cost and time savings. Arizona has legalised the medical use of marijuana so this is coded on patient EHRs.