Sanctioning new drug research is best way to honor fallen soldiers

As Americans on Memorial Day commemorated soldiers who have fallen in combat, it is imperative to not forget those who have perished by their own hands.

Suicide is the second most common cause of death in the military, outstripping automobile accidents, cancer, and homicide. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

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Overseas combat has proven to have deleterious effects on our troops. As many as  one in every five of the 2.8 million veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In 2013 alone, 12,632 veterans were diagnosed with PTSD.

While members of Congress often lionize our troops for putting their lives on the line to carry out U.S. interests abroad, the horrifying truth is that their praise is superficial and not reflected in the policy decisions that they make.

Recent advances in scientific research have yielded promising results for new PTSD treatment options, yet these treatments are not yet available to our troops because the U.S. government continues to stymie the legalization of the required medicines.

The most hopeful and obtainable treatment option may be medicinal cannabis. This March, a study on New Mexico’s medical marijuana program, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, analyzed 80 psychiatric evaluations of medical marijuana patients and  found that after using cannabis, PTSD scores reduced by more than 75 percent. These results are complemented by a study conducted last year by the New York University School of Medicine that concluded cannabis may palliate the flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety common to those suffering from PTSD.

While study after study has shown the success of such treatments, only 21 states have laws permitting the use of medicinal marijuana, and not all contend that cannabis is effective in treating PTSD.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana is now legal, the House State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee rejected a bill in April which would have allowed medical marijuana to be used for treating PTSD. While those suffering from PTSD in Colorado may still obtain marijuana legally, the bill would have enabled them to be overseen by their doctors and would have disburdened them from the heavy taxes associated with recreational marijuana. Further, the bill would have ensured that veterans who use cannabis maintain their Veterans Affairs benefits, as VA policy permits veterans who test positive for marijuana to continue to receive their benefits so long as they are in compliance with their state medical cannabis laws. Nonetheless, opponents of the bill argued that there is inadequate research to support the claim that marijuana is an effectual treatment for PTSD.

Unfortunately, conducting research on medical marijuana is not easy due to federal regulations. One University of Arizona study seeking to analyze the effects of cannabis on veterans with PTSD has been delayed for years due to overbearing bureaucracy. After receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2011, the study’s researchers waited three years for approval from the federal government, which only signed off on the study in April. Now the team must wait to obtain a Schedule I registration with the Drug Enforcement Administration before they are able to legally obtain cannabis and begin the study.

If government officials are to require that more research be conducted in order to validate the efficacy of medical marijuana, then the government must countenance that research and let the experts determine the validity.

But it’s not just cannabis that holds promising results for treating PTSD, and legalizing further research on harder drugs is going to be an arduous process. Recent medical studies have shown that psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, and MDMA yield very promising results for treating PTSD. Perhaps the best benefit from these drugs is that they only need to be administered a few times in comparison to other costly medications which need to be taken daily for years.

A team of researchers at the University of South Florida last year found  that psilocybin “enhanced forgetting” of unpleasant memories on tests administered on mice. While the team was able to acquire psilocybin to use on mice, they expect to be obstructed by legal restraints when attempting to reproduce the study on human subjects.

Meanwhile, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is currently conducting its second phase of research on the effects of MDMA on U.S. veterans, firefighters, and police officers with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. While the research will provide invaluable insight into the benefits of MDMA for PTSD treatment, the study is still small in size and additional research studies would greatly aggrandize the overall consensus on the drug’s utility.

The U.S. has already spent $85.9 million treating recent veterans who suffer from PTSD. That figure will undoubtedly increase, but will do so more rapidly if better treatment options continue to be prohibited.

Federal and local governments must recognize the critical importance of allowing this research to be conducted more freely and they must guarantee that active duty soldiers and veterans are not denied treatments which have already proven to be successful.

If American officials really wish to honor the troops, then they must address the egregiously high rate of suicide prevalent in the military and offer promising solutions to ensure that those troops returning home in the coming years receive the treatment they deserve.

Gargano is a Young Voices Advocate.