Credit: Zachary Wasserman

Colorado is offering almost $8 million in grant funding for medical marijuana research — and a Penn professor is leading the way to determine whether the drug could be a solution for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Perelman School of Medicine researcher and faculty member Marcel Bonn-Miller is coordinating several studies investigating the effects of marijuana on PTSD. Bonn-Miller leads the largest two of eight studies made possible by a recent $7.6 million grant from the state of Colorado.

“Lots of state governments have realized that there isn’t enough research to inform such decisions,” Bonn-Miller said when discussing his research on marijuana as a potential reliever of PTSD symptoms. “And that’s partly — in my understanding — the drive for Colorado to fund this research. Because there’s not enough evidence to make a decision one way or another.”

Although both studies focus on marijuana’s effect on PTSD symptoms, they differ considerably. The first is divided between two separate sites in Phoenix and at Johns Hopkins University and consists of 76 veterans with severe PTSD. This study compares three different strains of marijuana for symptom relief.

Bonn-Miller and his team will use questionnaires and other physiological indicators of physical and mental health to track any effects produced by the administered drug over the course of the study, and researchers will continue to track the participants for six months afterwards. 

The second study, which is much larger, takes place in Denver and is largely observational. This study consists of 150 participants with PTSD and offers a real-world look at marijuana use. Half of the participants will have a history of use and will have already been obtaining marijuana on their own. Each participant from this group will be paired with a non-user who has experienced similar circumstances. These pairs will be tracked and compared for a year.

“We’re matching types of trauma,” Bonn-Miller said. “So someone who got their PTSD from military service and had been using marijuana … would be paired with someone with PTSD from military service who was a non-marijuana user.”

In a medical research landscape where chemical components of marijuana are increasingly valued as potentially beneficial agents, these studies are highly relevant. A study taking place at several children’s hospitals throughout the state of Pennsylvania, for instance, has been investigating marijuana’s ability to treat epileptic seizures in children.

“Currently, there are a lot of people asserting that marijuana has established medical benefits in the absence of controlled research,” said associate professor at Johns Hopkins Ryan Vandrey, who is a leader at the Johns Hopkins research site. “I think that’s mistaken, and that’s something we’re trying to address. A lot of people are telling others, ‘Hey, if you’ve got PTSD, marijuana is really helpful,' but there’s no scientific data for that. It’s all anecdote. So our interest is trying to put some science behind that argument.”

Beyond the question of efficacy, researchers must consider possible negatives to medical marijuana use. Among these are panic and anxiety, which are particularly troubling in those with PTSD because they can escalate under the influence of marijuana.

And yet in a medical setting that offers few treatment options for sufferers of severe PTSD, some individuals have already sought marijuana as a relief mechanism.

“We were looking at people with PTSD to try to determine why it is they use marijuana,” Bonn-Miller said. “And we found a lot of people use it for coping reasons — to try to cope with their symptoms … particularly symptoms of poor sleep as well as hyperarousal.”

If data from these studies shows that marijuana is as effective in treating these symptoms as some users believe it to be, it could change the face of PTSD treatment.

Ultimately, though, the researchers have no objective or expectation for the studies beyond the collection of high-quality data. 

“I think this research study is important in establishing, through really good methodology, the real value of marijuana in this particular medical condition,” Vandrey said. “It’s really our mission to objectively evaluate the safety and efficacy of using marijuana in this context.”

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