“I’ve got to treat my body if I’m ever going to recover from this illness,” Kimberly Callis, an independent researcher with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, tells High Times. “Cannabis [is] a systemic medicine; complex PTSD is a systemic condition. The two really go hand-in-hand, especially with a target on the endocannabinoid system.”
Since there is a minimal body of work around C-PTSD, most of what we know about medical marijuana and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder comes from studies oriented around former combat soldiers. Recent research shows cannabis can have a positive effect on those with PTSD. Earlier this year, researchers finally concluded a decade-long FDA-approved study on the effects of THC and CBD in veterans with PTSD.
However, trauma has many more faces than this—particularly complex trauma, or C-PTSD. Plus, more and more are seeking medical marijuana as a treatment for mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. So what happens when we begin to look at trauma that isn’t rooted in serving in the military and overall law enforcement?
Difference Between PTSD and C-PTSD
The National Institute on Mental Health categories PTSD as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” Anyone can develop this condition, especially those who have survived “physical or sexual assault, abuse, [an] accident, [a] disaster, or many other serious events.” Common symptoms include, but are not limited to, flashbacks, sleep problems, nightmares, avoidance of certain places related to an event, physical tension, feelings of shame and guilt, and irritability. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 7.7 million adults in the United States experience PTSD.
Complex trauma, on the other hand, is defined a little differently. This condition often describes multiple traumatic incidents related to abuse and/or neglect during developmental years, explains the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. When a someone experiences multiple traumatic events so early on in their lives, it can greatly impact development and formation of the sense of self. It also deeply affects a child’s relationships, even into adult years. C-PTSD can more accurately describe children who have experienced war terror as civilians, for instance.
While PTSD is a very serious condition, as trauma does not discriminate, the framework of C-PTSD helps us understand how trauma impacts childhood development and sense of self. According to psychotherapist Peter Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Complex PTSD is more insidious form of PTSD, characterized by “emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a vicious inner critic and social anxiety.”
While there are very few studies out there about medical marijuana and PTSD, research is still incredibly valuable, as they illustrate how beneficial cannabis can be, even for folks with C-PTSD. Even in today’s climate, research involving scheduled drugs is incredibly difficult to conduct. (Even the Department of Veteran Affairs denies the power of cannabis to heal from trauma, because government agencies adheres to federal law.) As researchers are able to conduct more studies on medical marijuana and mental health, there is an untapped area of study centering C-PTSD, centering survivors of childhood abuse.
Although I wasn’t a stranger to feeling trauma, I’d thought PTSD was exclusively for combat veterans until I was an adult and found C-PTSD to more accurately describe my experience. In college, I started reading more about PTSD. During this time, I also got involved with my campus chapter of NORML. My peers handed me copies of High Times and encouraged me to check every book in the campus library about weed, including Martin Booth’s Cannabis: A Short History.
In my own experience consuming medical marijuana, cannabis is used to treat my symptoms of C-PTSD, such as sleep disturbances and distraction. It’s not intended to be an end-all cure; and like other methods of treatment and forms of healing, what works for one person will not work for everyone.
“The primary goal of treatment is extinction of the fear memory from its associated memory of the traumatic event so that a ‘trigger’ (a loud noise that recalls the memory of a gunshot or a smell that recalls an abusive parent, for instance) can be experienced without the associated terror response,” explains author Michael Backers in Cannabis Pharmacy: The Guide to Medical Marijuana. In other words, when we experience a trigger in our environments, weed helps ground us. It reminds us we’re not in the same place as we once were when trauma occurs.
Rumination, or the racing of thoughts without completion, is one symptom Callis identified cannabis—particularly THC, in her experience—can alleviate. She describes this rumination as the “busy brain … the constant hypervigilance … the worries, the stresses, the anxieties” that can preoccupy us. Racing thoughts, or rumination, can be a common cause of insomnia. By using cannabis as a tool to unwind, to relax, Callis has a much easier time getting shut eye.
“Cannabis helps to calm my busy brain,” explained Callis. “It gets it back to a level where I’m controlling the path of thought—that is stress-relieving in itself, that helps you if you’re struggling with sleep, with insomnia.”
But night time isn’t the only time when these symptoms pop up. Racing thoughts can lead to distraction, causing many to have great difficulty in paying attention. In my own experience, consuming hybrid strains containing both THC and CBD—Lemon G, Swamp Serum, Z7, and Harlequin—have helped me regain focus during the day.
Anti-rape activist and writer, Roslyn Talusan, had been using cannabis medically for eight years to manage anxiety and depression related to C-PTSD, but only got officially registered as a patient fairly recently, just over a year ago.
She uses a combination of CBD and THC to treat anxiety and physical tension related to C-PTSD. When she can afford it, she uses CBD oil every few hours—and when she needs to relax, she uses a few drops of THC oil. However, she also utilizes edibles (particularly gummies) and traditional smoking.
“I smoke buds out of my rose quartz pipe,” she tells High Times. “My strains right now are OG Melon (Sativa) and LA Confidential (Indica), since those are what my dispensary offers. I use OG Melon during the day, when I need a creativity boost, and LA Confidential in the evenings, when I’m unwinding and trying to sleep. The best strains I’ve ever had are Super Lemon Haze and Jack Herer, and I wish my dispensary would stock those!”
What Comes Next
While Talusan and myself are incredibly fortunate to be registered patients, we’re both incredibly aware of inaccessibility. Since Callis lives in Georgia, she relies solely on the underground market, where she doesn’t have as many options as a medical marijuana patient. While the Peach State has an established program, it is very limiting to certain types of cannabis products, similar to other southern states. On April 17, Governor Brian Kemp passed a bill to allow patients access to low-THC oil, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. However, Georgia is still one of the worst states for weed charges “with possession of a mere two ounces being punishable by up to 10 years in prison.”
There is a small, but developing, body of work on medical marijuana for PTSD. However, that body of work is even slimmer for C-PTSD. Moving forward, it’s critical to speak about our experiences (when we are ready) and the healing potential of this plant, especially while many of us still live under prohibition. Even in states with established medical marijuana programs and/or recreational policies, arrests continue to impact Black and Brown communities disproportionately.
“I’m so glad that marijuana is gaining more credibility as a way to treat PTSD, and that we’re becoming more aware that it’s not just veterans who have PTSD,” added Talusan.
“Now we just need to work on breaking down the stigma, and decriminalizing it everywhere.”