The State of Michigan has awarded Wayne State University in Detroit a $7 million grant to investigate the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis to improve military veteran patients’ quality of life and reduce post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive symptoms that can precede suicide.
The grant was awarded as part of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs’ Marijuana Regulatory Agency’s 2021 Veteran Marijuana Research Grant Program.
Leslie Lundahl, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at the WSU School of Medicine, is the lead principal investigator on the five-year project — Wayne State Warriors Marijuana Clinical Research Program: Investigating the Impact of Cannabinoids on Veteran’s Behavioral Health.
“This project is timely and important because, despite increasing medicalization and legalization of cannabis use across the United States, the safety and effectiveness of therapeutic cannabis/cannabinoids are not yet well established,” says Lundahl. “Community support of legal cannabis and the perception that cannabis is safe indicates public opinion has outpaced science on cannabis use.
“There are risks to heavy and chronic use, including impairments in attention, learning, and memory, as well as increased risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and medical issues such as heart attack and lung irritation. At the same time, cannabinoid science is rapidly expanding, and it is likely that some of these compounds can help treat common conditions.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention report showed that more than 6,400 veterans died by suicide in 2018, more than 17 per day. Veterans make up approximately 8 percent of the population, but accounted for 14 percent of all suicide deaths in U.S. adults.
The grant will support a large-scale, randomized, controlled clinical trial over five years and within two studies examining the efficacy of cannabinoids to treat PTSD and suicidality in United States armed forces veterans.
The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act passed in 2018 led to the Marijuana Regulation Fund in the state treasury. It requires the Marijuana Regulatory Agency to expend money in the fund until 2022 or for at least two years, to provide $20 million annually to one or more clinical trials approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and sponsored by a non-profit organization or researcher within an academic institution researching the efficacy of marijuana in treating the medical conditions of veterans and preventing veteran suicide.
The study team includes Seth Norholm, David Ledgerwood, Tanja Jovanovic, Mark Greenwald, Hilary Marusak, Krishnarao Maddipati, and Samiran Ghosh, all professors or associate professors at WSU.
“We have assembled an exceptional and highly accomplished team to explore and develop safe, effective and accessible treatments for combat veterans with suicidality, mood, trauma and related disorders,” says Lundahl.
Lundahl’s goal has been developing and improving treatment options for individuals who want help stopping their substance use. More recently, promising data from both animal and human studies suggest that cannabis and its constituents — cannabinoids, particularly tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol — have potential for therapeutic benefit.
In study one, 200 veterans will be randomized into one of four different THC-CBD dose mixtures for a 12-week treatment phase, with one week’s worth of cannabis delivered by a mobile health unit staffed by security as well as research assistants who will secure blood and urine samples on site.
In study two, 150 veterans will be randomized into either a naturalistic group that will be followed as they continue to use cannabis as they normally do (observation only), or into a THC reduction group in which veterans are asked to switch from their typical cannabis product to using a lower THC/higher CBD product. Adherence to this switch will be incentivized using contingency management.
“This project provides a unique opportunity for us to bring our experience in assessing biobehavioral effects of acute and sustained cannabis use to help identify the potential therapeutic indications of cannabis use, while considering the possible risks of use for these indications,” says Lundahl.