Major Study Coming on Medical Cannabis and Chronic Pain

January 7, 2016

Neurobiologist Emily Lindley is launching a fascinating study evaluating medical marijuana’s effectiveness at treating chronic pain when compared to opioid pain relievers:

The question of whether marijuana can help treat chronic pain is important enough on its own, but Lindley’s study takes on extra significance in the context of the ongoing epidemic of opioid abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 2010 more than 14,000 people have been dying annually from overdosing on these prescription painkillers.

Physicians have commented for more than a century on the potential for cannabis to substitute for opioid drugs, and several recent studies seem to bolster this hypothesis. Researchers examining public-health records have found evidence that painkiller prescriptions, opioid abuse, and overdose deaths has declined in medical marijuana states.

The idea has not been tested with rigorous clinical trials, however. Such trials are expensive, and they’re normally paid for by a pharmaceutical company hoping to bring a new drug to market. Because a plant that exists and reproduces in nature can’t be patented, cannabis offers few opportunities for patents (and thus profits), which makes it look like a loser to most companies. [The Atlantic]

Lindley’s experience moving her project forward reveals a great deal about why clinical trials on the efficacy of medical cannabis are rare in the U.S., despite considerable interest among patients and policymakers. Federal regulations guiding how such research must be performed create substantial costs and inconveniences that are all but impossible to overcome.

There’s some irony in the fact that medical marijuana has now been approved in more than half of all U.S. states, and yet researchers still struggle to obtain an approved supply due to rules aimed at preventing marijuana intended for research from being mishandled. The reality is that medical cannabis is already being used for treatment by a large and growing number of patients around the country. Well-regulated dispensaries with professional security are serving patients every day, but there remains a shortage of clinical data to quantify the positive health outcomes our patients routinely report to us.

We appreciate the efforts of Dr. Lindley and other researchers working to increase access to important data about cannabis and health. Our mission to improve patients’ quality of life would not be possible without the hard work of those dedicated to studying the cannabis plant and advancing empirical knowledge of its benefits. The more we learn, the better prepared we are to serve patients and promote public health.