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This is Your Brain on Cannabis

"We need to have the right to heal with whatever means we deem fit for our own personal healing journeys."

It wasn’t so long ago that our televisions were clogged with public service announcements warning us that Cannabis consumption was akin to tossing one’s mind into a frying pan and letting it sizzle. 

While today we know that such crude analogies are not, in fact, an accurate representation of “your brain on drugs,” we are still woefully under-informed when it comes to understanding the role of Cannabis in the mental health of humans. From success stories of military veterans using Cannabis to alleviate symptoms of PTSD to concerns over potential changes in the brain chemistry of underage consumers, to say the situation is complex would be a massive understatement. 

Beyond the vast array of different ways in which Cannabis and mental health can and should be studied, there’s also the underlying issue of the plant’s continued status as a Class I controlled substance. In stark contrast to the wealth of ongoing research being conducted in countries like Canada and Israel, the fact that Cannabis remains federally illegal in the U.S. means efforts to study its medical efficacy on all fronts are extremely limited and subject to the use of subpar samples.

That last point is one that Aaron Newsom would love to change.

As the COO and co-founder of NorCal’s Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA), Newsom had a first-row seat to witness the benefits Cannabis can provide to veterans suffering from PTSD and other related conditions. In addition to serving the SCVA’s mission, Newsom also believes it’s incumbent on organizations like his own to not only call for needed research, but to spearhead such efforts too, wherever possible.

“We try as hard as we can to do as much research as possible,” Newsom said. “But there’s not much that can be done while the plant still falls under a Schedule I drug classification.”

Despite this massive barrier, Newsom says the SCVA continues to do whatever it can. Back in 2016, for instance, Stanford University and the VA conducted a study utilizing both the SCVA’s Cannabis and veteran populace.

“They did a seven or eight month study with questionnaires and Fitbit tests,” Newsom noted. “They looked at all their sleeping habits and everything like that – and that was a peer-reviewed study that was published a few years back.”

Unfortunately, such studies remain a rarity, even now. As a result, Newsom can only offer his anecdotal observations when it comes to the overall possible value of Cannabis as a net positive for veterans wishing to treat symptoms of PTSD. 

Of all the contenders, it’s issues with sleep and pain, Newsom believes, where Cannabis probably makes the biggest impact.

“I think most people in the veteran community, specifically, are using it to help with sleep regulation and pain management,” he said. “One of the big effects of PTSD is reduced sleep, as well as high anxiety, hyper-vigilance, stress and depression. All of those are things that can hinder sleep and we’ve seen that just being able to get proper rest can really make a big difference.”

The ability of Cannabis to aid in sleep, which in turn leads to improved mental health, is but one of the endless fibers in this utterly massive heap of fascinating, if staggering, fabric. A distinctly different thread can be found in the work of Dr. Alison Draisin, who practices Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy at Seattle’s AIMS Institute. 

Though she understands why many may assume the concept of Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy is an extension of the understanding that sitting on one’s couch and smoking weed makes them feel comfortable, her approach and interest lies elsewhere.

“In a therapy situation,” Draisin explained, “I want the client to become anxious. I want clients to have a shift, so then I can explore what’s really going on behind that anxiety. Some people will say they can’t use Cannabis because it makes them paranoid or anxious, but I actually like to put clients in that state of anxiety, so that we can explore what’s causing it and what’s coming up for them.”

As part of the process, Draisin stresses that focusing in on specific Cannabis cultivars (or strains) is, in her belief, of vital importance. 

“If you’re going to do Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy, you should also be talking to your client about Cannabis. I firmly believe that looking at different cultivars with a client – why some work, why some didn’t – should be part of that process.”

Case in point: The topic of Cannabis and mental health leads to a lot of talk of promise, and a healthy dose of frustration over the fact that everything must still be cloaked in caveats until more research is allowed and completed.

Asked about the topic, Draisin agrees that research is of vital importance.

“There is so much more research that is needed,” Draisin explained. “More information is needed. More protocols are needed. I still feel like doctors and nurses don’t know enough about Cannabis and the myriad uses it can have. Oftentimes, without the proper knowledge and education, I think that medical professionals don’t always turn to Cannabis first. They turn towards pharmacology.”

The same could be said for Newsom, who also underscored that the value of Cannabis as a tool in promoting mental health is directly tied to what legal access we have to the plant.

“It’s a human rights issue,” Newsom said. “We need to have the right to heal with whatever means we deem fit for our own personal healing journeys. Whatever is going to make us happier, you shouldn’t have to ask permission for it.”

There’s arguably nothing more important than a healthy mind, so let us hope that greater opportunities to fully understand and better empower consumers on the subject of Cannabis and mental wellbeing arrive shortly. This is one brain teaser which is long overdue for an answer sheet.

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue of all Leaf Magazines.

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