Starting with California in 1996, more than 30 states in the U.S. have legalized the use of marijuana to treat pain. There’s plenty of historical and anecdotal evidence that marijuana is an effective painkiller, but there is a serious lack of scientific studies. This is largely because marijuana is classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, meaning that, according to the DEA, it has no medical use. As a result, it’s hard to get funding for research. Now, however, a team at UCLA called the Cannabis Research Initiative is planning to do a study using opioid patients.
The plan is to test different combinations of THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana, and cannabidiol, which is an essential component of medical marijuana but is derived directly from the hemp plant, which is related to the marijuana plant. Cannabidiol is an anti-inflammatory component and does not get the user high. The researchers hope to discover a combination that will not only be effective at treating pain but also help reduce the number of opioids being prescribed.
There has already been some promising research when it comes to medical marijuana making a dent in the opioid crisis. A five-year study published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine found that in states with medical marijuana laws, there were about six percent fewer opioid prescriptions written to Medicaid patients compared to states without those laws. Another study looked at Medicare Part D patients and found a drop in opioid prescriptions of 8.5 percent in medical marijuana states. However, it’s unclear whether those people actually switched from opioid painkillers to medical marijuana.
The UCLA initiative has received funds from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, federal and state sources, and private donors. Before it can get off the ground, however, it still needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Research on marijuana in general is difficult because of federal drug scheduling. Even if the state in which research is taking place allows the use of marijuana, if the institute where it’s taking place is subject to federal laws, they can’t use it. For example, the state of Colorado allows marijuana both of medical and adult private use. You can walk into a dispensary and buy it for any reason you want. However, if you’re a researcher who happens to work at a federal institution that’s part of the University of Colorado, not only can you not purchase or use that marijuana for research purposes, but you could find yourself with all of your funding revoked for violating federal law.
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