A cannabis initiative team at UCLA plans to conduct a high-quality study on the painkilling properties of medical marijuana. Since the state of California took the leap of faith in 1996 to legalize medical marijuana, 30 more states and the District of Columbia followed the same path of legalizing the plant to assist in treating pain. There are several studies on pot’s painkilling properties although, scientific evidence that it works better than traditional painkillers is hard to come by.
The U.S. government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with no medical use, meaning funding for the research is difficult to receive. In an article from Current Pain and Headache Reports in 2015, the journal points out the effectiveness of high-quality clinical studies of pot, but Dr. Jeffrey Chen desires a change.
“The public consumption of cannabis has already far outpaced our scientific understanding,” said Chen, director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We really desperately need to catch up.”
With that being said, one of the first academic programs in the world, dedicated to the study of cannabis, will be hoping to conduct a study using opioid patients. A distinguished professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the UCLA school of medicine, Edythe London, said she designed the study to test different combinations of THC, which is the principal psychoactive component of marijuana. She will also be testing cannabidiol, an anti-inflammatory component that will not get the user “high.”
London said in a recent interview with NBC News that the study aims to seek out which combination “produces the most good,” with the main goal focused on reducing the test subjects’ pain and their use of opioids.
With the anticipated study, another hope would be to diminish the national epidemic of opioid abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdose killed 42,000 Americans in 2016. Although there are illegal drug deaths like fentanyl and heroin, 40 percent of deaths involved a prescription opioid, the CDC said.
Alex Jordan and Robby Pinnamaneni suffered chronic pain due to a serious car accident that left both individuals with broken bones and nerve damage. The two told NBC News that while they were in the hospital, morphine and oxycodone were available with the push of a button, but they didn’t use it to avoid becoming an opioid statistic.
Pinnamaneni told NBC he refused the prescription for opioids, knowing that they are addictive. “I turned to cannabis in lieu of pills and I’ve never turned back,” he said. Jordan on the other hand, did take the opioid pain relievers but said she stopped while on bed rest because her hair and skin were becoming dry.
Jordan and Pinnamaneni currently work at a marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, California. Pinnamaneni said the average age at some of their stores range from 40 to 50. ”I see families that come in together and shop for pain relief,” he said. “I think people are opening their eyes to the fact that this isn’t some evil drug.”
Some research proves to be encouraging such as JAMA Internal Medicine whose research discovered that states with medical marijuana laws had about 6 percent fewer opioid prescriptions among Medicaid patients compared to states without such laws.Although JAMA’s research proved a decline in opioid use, the study could not determine whether people in those states were switching from opioid prescriptions to medical marijuana use. Without that knowledge, its unknown whether medical marijuana availability can help stem the opioid epidemic.
According to a health policy analyst at the University of California, Yuyan Shi, who studies the health consequences of marijuana and opioid use, said medical marijuana shows potential in reducing opioid addiction and abuse, but without sufficient evidence that cannabis helps individual patients better than opioids do, it is too soon to jump to conclusions. During an interview Shi added that they study planned by the Cannabis Research Initiative is “much-needed research.”
“We’re not trying to do pro-cannabis research or anti-cannabis research,” Chen said. “We’re just trying to do good science.”
The researchers need approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administrationbefore the study can begin. They will also need funding for the research although Chen mentioned the initiative received funds from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, federal and state sources, and private donors.