The critics are lining up against the VA’s PTSD pot study
Cannabis advocates are criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs for wasting time and resources on recently published research that produced inconclusive results on the effects of medical marijuana in treating pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I find the funds spent on regurgitating these studies to be worthless," said Sean Kiernan, a veteran and advocate for the Weed for Warriors project.
VA researchers last week published two studies that reviewed previous analyses and evaluations of the effects of marijuana on treating chronic pain and PTSD. The meta-analysis was led by researchers at the VA Portland Health Care System.
Mr. Kiernan, a combat veteran who served in Central America in the 1980s and '90s, has advocated for access to medical marijuana for veterans since 2013. Today, he works with Arizona-based physician Dr. Suzanne Sisley, who is enrolling veterans in a clinical trial evaluating cannabis in treating PTSD.
He accuses the VA of frustrating Dr. Sisley's efforts to recruit veterans for her trial.
"Couple that with the active blockade the VA has undertaken with [Dr. Sisley's] study and one is left scratching one's head on what is really going on. It doesn't make sense unless the screams for research are intended to be words only," he said. "They say, 'We don't have research,' and then they're blocking the rigorous research."
Dr. Sisley said the published article was "not helpful."
"[The VA researchers are] just retreading all the same material. There's been so many meta-analyses. The fact that government money was wasted, again..." she said, her voice trailing off.
"These aren't controlled trials, they're all observational studies fraught with tons of human bias," Dr. Sisley said of the research.
The VA researchers reached the same conclusion, writing that the available studies were insufficient to make recommendations on the medical benefits of marijuana. The researchers were barred from talking with the media to discuss their results.
Media inquiries were directed to a previous statement made by Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin during a White House press conference in May. At that time, he tread lightly on endorsing medical marijuana because of its status as an illegal substance under federal law.
"My opinion is, is that some of the states that have put in appropriate controls, there may be some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful," Mr. Shulkin said. "And we're interested in looking at that and learning from that. But until the time that federal law changes, we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful."
The National Institutes of Health lists at least 18 completed clinical trials with results that analyze the effects of cannabis on pain. For cannabis and PTSD, Dr. Sisley's is one of about 10 studies underway, but hers is the only study evaluating military veterans and specifically those with chronic and treatment-resistant PTSD.
"It's the most rigorous kind of science you can do — triple blind, everybody's blinded in the study. Vets don't know what they're getting, I don't know what anybody's on, the independent raters don't know what anybody is getting, so that way we eliminate any chance of human bias," she said.
Completion of the phase two trial and positive results will set researchers on the path of phase three — replicating the findings in a larger test pool. But that's years down the road and Dr. Sisley first is concerned with what the science will show in this study.
"I don't know what this data will show. As much as I believe, there are certain studies that suggest cannabis could be helpful, we know we're on the right track with this," she said. "Until there's a controlled trial, you can't make any definitive conclusions."
About 10 percent to 11 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD, with similar numbers of Vietnam-era veterans, according to the VA. At least 20 veterans kill themselves every day.
Advocates for marijuana say bureaucratic and legal barriers hinder access for a substance that could have immeasurable benefits for this population.