News Article Details

Study Campbell cited doesn't seem to exist

Austin American-Statesman - 7/15/2019

Texas lawmakers this year voted to broaden the state's medical marijuana program to include more qualifying conditions than just intractable epilepsy.

Under the bill, which was signed into law, patients with several more conditions, including terminal cancers, autism and multiple sclerosis, will now be eligible to participate in the program.

During a debate in the Senate over the proposal, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, argued against including post-traumatic stress disorder in the bill. The disorder ultimately was not included.

"A study was done, a post-mortem, so a retrospective study done, looking at autopsies and drug levels, what drugs were in the blood of veterans that committed suicide, and 70 percent had THC," Campbell said.

We decided to take a look at Campbell's claim to see if a study of this nature existed and whether there's a connection between veterans, marijuana use and suicide.

No signs of Campbell's study

Campbell's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. We searched far and wide but could not find a study with results matching those described by Campbell.

Several experts and advocates contacted for this piece said they were unaware of a study that reflected the findings Campbell described.

Several studies examine the relationship between cannabis use and suicidal thoughts. Others have cross-referenced registry data on deaths attributed to suicide with the timing of the legalization of medical marijuana in the states where the suicides took place.

Dr. Arpana Agrawal, professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine who authored a study on cannabis and suicidal thoughts and behavior, said these types of studies have produced mixed results.

A 2016 study by CDC scientists that used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the rate of suicidal thinking was more than 9 times higher for veterans with drug problems than those without, with the majority involving marijuana abuse. But the study also noted that other factors could confound the association between the two.

Cannabis use and veterans

Research also is lacking on cannabis use and suicide among veterans specifically.

A study conducted by Safe States Alliance, an injury and violence prevention national nonprofit, in March 2018 used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Violent Death Reporting System to analyze U.S. veteran and armed forces deaths from suicide.

The group's study found that 9 percent of victims had marijuana in their system. It did not show whether a victim had more than one substance in their system.

Sharon Gilmartin, deputy director of Safe States Alliance, said she wasn't aware of a statistic like the one Campbell cited and she cautioned against interpreting studies that include toxicology data as definitively linking marijuana to suicide because of the nature of THC.

"It's not quite like alcohol where you have a certain BAC (blood alcohol content), and that directly links to impairment, then it goes away and you're kind of back to sobriety more or less," Gilmartin said. "It's a different dose-response relationship, and it also has a different latency period, so it stays in your blood long after you're impaired."

There are also limitations to what such data can tell us, Agrawal said, because of that age-old statistical standard that "correlation does not imply causation."

"Veterans are more likely to report cannabis use and are also at risk for suicide," Agrawal said. "But that doesn't answer the question as to how the two are related."

Our ruling

Campbell suggested that cannabis plays a role in suicide among veterans, claiming that a study showed 70 percent of veterans who committed suicide had THC in their body.

But the study she cited doesn't seem to exist. Some research does exist on this topic but it doesn't come close to making the conclusion described by Campbell. Experts also questioned the validity of drawing a conclusion about the connection between marijuana use and suicide generally -- let alone among veterans.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire.

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