Arizona Researcher: More Work Needed To Conclude Whether Marijuana Can Help PTSD Patients

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, April 8, 2021 - 12:22pm
Updated: Thursday, April 8, 2021 - 2:11pm

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As more voters in more states were approving medical marijuana use, lists emerged on what kinds of illnesses could be countered or treated with pot. Those included glaucoma, epilepsy, and cancer. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was another that was mentioned, but also generated some controversy.

Recently, one research study was completed that specifically focused on whether marijuana could help veterans with PTSD. The Valley’s Dr. Sue Sisley led the study, and The Show spoke with her about some of the conclusions.

Sue Sisley
Sue Sisley
Sue Sisley

Interview Highlights

Dr. Sisley, you've been on for years as a marijuana researcher and some may be surprised to find out the conclusions in this particular study actually point to there not being much difference between those who had real marijuana versus a placebo. 

I think we were all disappointed because, of course, the whole reason we embarked on this clinical trial was to try to uncover a new treatment for PTSD. And the input we were getting from all the veteran community was that they were utilizing cannabis successfully for many years now to dampen a lot of the symptoms of PTSD. So we went into the study with that hypothesis. But unfortunately, the THC did not, did not beat placebo. It's considered a negative study, meaning THC, you know, high THC flower did improve PTSD, but it wasn't statistically significant above the placebo response. And that's a common problem in these [Food and Drug Administration] clinical trials, especially when you're studying psychiatric conditions like PTSD or pain studies, that you often find a very high placebo response rate because there's, there's just so many different psychological elements to those illnesses that can make people susceptible to placebo effect. I do want to mention that the study drug that we were forced to use, sadly, this cannabis is, is diluted with stems, sticks and leaves and it's moldy. And so we're concerned that the study drug we are mandated to use by the government is not reflective of what patients in the real world are able to purchase in regulated markets or in the, what we call the altruistic market. So I think that we, we're eager to redo this study. We're creating a more robust study design and we are eager to repeat this FDA phase two trial with real world cannabis flower. 

As more states, including Arizona, are legalizing some level of recreational marijuana, if the study you were doing, if they're not actually giving you the material where it's apples to apples, that must be a real challenge. 

Yes, I heard many of the veterans in this clinical trial were very dismayed when they saw the quality of the drug that they were required to inhale. They just were astonished how little it resembled the cannabis they can easily access in any legal market. And a lot of them said this is like garbage in, garbage out. You know, they were worried that this was going to sabotage our results from the beginning because many of them were, you know, previous cannabis users and recognized that this was a low quality material that might undermine our efficacy data and, and harm our outcomes. And we are all concerned about that. Even though you can't explicitly say that in your article that you're publishing, I think we certainly made some references to that. And other scientists around the country are finally getting the courage to start questioning the quality of this drug that we've been forced to use for 50 years and start demanding that the government try to open doors. You know, scientists need access to options. We can't be pigeonholed into only this one type of flower, that, the only genetics that are available. 

Was there any progress to determine whether placebo or whatever strain of cannabis you were using, did give any side effects? Were there any issues? 

I was surprised by how well tolerated the cannabis flower was. And even more shocking when you realize that this was a smoking study. So, you know, me as a physician, I'm, you know, vigorously opposed to anyone smoking anything. We don't want people inhaling products of combustion. But even with that, the veterans in this trial tolerated the smoked flower really well. And we saw very few adverse events. We saw no serious adverse events ... We saw only mild side effects that were often very short and self-limited. ... So I think that ... this study showed enough promise that this, that given that all of the groups improved, even though they didn't beat placebo, all of the groups got better. And that the study drug was well tolerated suggests to us that we are on the right path and we should continue pursuing this using real world cannabis flower and trying to allow patients to have longer treatment duration.

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