PTSD patients offered cannabis treatment, but hurdles remain

Experts say a disconnect exists in the medical community on the impact and usefulness of medical cannabis.

Bella Dally-Steele

Next month, Minnesotans with post-traumatic stress disorder will be able to register for cannabis-based therapy.

Minnesota is now the 25th state to recognize PTSD as a cannabis-treatable condition after the Office of Medical Cannabis opened registration July 1, and patients will start receiving the medication Aug. 1. Experts say conflicts in the medical community may still prevent widespread treatment.

“I think people who are open-minded will look at this as another tool in the toolbox for patients,” said OMC Director Michelle Larson.

To register for treatment, Larson said patients must be certified by a physician.

Patients will then be directed to a patient care center, where they can get prescriptions from one of the state’s manufacturers, Leafline Labs or Minnesota Medical Solutions, a Vireo Health company. The prescriptions are refillable on a monthly basis.

Though the process itself is straightforward, Larson said, many barriers still exist to those with PTSD seeking care.

The first hurdle is simply education, said Sarah Overby, medical science liaison for Minnesota Medical Solutions.

Despite the limited care available to PTSD patients, few are aware medical cannabis is a treatment option, and few physicians actually suggest it, she said.

Even if a patient is aware of the therapy, getting certified by a physician is complicated.

Gary Starr, chief medical officer at Leafline Labs, said doctors hesitate to certify patients for medical cannabis due to a lack of understanding of the drug, internalized biases against it and worries that their reputation will suffer from repeated certifications.

This division in the medical community has and will continue to make certification for PTSD communities especially difficult, Starr said.

Most notably, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a main medical provider for a community widely affected by PTSD, has historically prohibited doctors from certifying patients for medical cannabis, he said.

If this trend continues, veterans seeking care may be forced to get certification from someone other than their primary physician, which complicates the process, Starr said.

To address this disconnect in the medical community, Larson and Overby said their teams are doing outreach to give medical professionals the cannabis education they didn’t get in medical school — due to the drug’s legal classification, it has not been included in standard curriculum.

Starr said physicians should also understand cannabis’ positive side effects.

PTSD patients often turn to self-medication due to the lack of official resources available to them, he said.

“The reality is that a lot of people with PTSD are using street marijuana right now, and if they do, they don’t know what’s in it,” said Thomas Arneson, research manager at OMC.

Overby said official therapy could also help self-medicating PTSD patients ditch dangerous self-medications like opioids and alcohol.

Despite these challenges, Larson said she’s hopeful the new expansion will continue to improve the lives of Minnesotans.

“This is my first time in public health where I’m seeing people’s lives actually changing,” she said.