Medical Marijuana is Finally Being Put to the Test
Research on medical marijuana is nothing new, but anyone who has a vague familiarity with the subject knows that despite the decades of dedicated attempts to study the plant, findings have remained limited. The issue stems from the fact that cannabis is classified by the DEA as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, ecstasy, and LSD, meaning it has “a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” This class of drugs is separated from those in Schedule II (including fentanyl, Vicodin, and OxyContin) by the potential for medical (and monetary) benefit. Even though 30 states and D.C. have legally approved the use of cannabis for medical reasons, the DEA has not responded by reclassifying pot.
The effects of this refusal to reclassify have been twofold. For one, federal drug enforcement has remained hyper-focused on low-level offender incarceration and, second, high-quality medical investigations of the healing capacities of cannabis have stalled. Fewer studies mean less access to information about medical marijuana for potential patients, which NPR reported on in April: “Doctors who treat [medical marijuana patients] are caught in the middle of a conflict in federal and state laws—a predicament that is only worsened by thin scientific data.”
The studies that do exist are made using powdered marijuana (yes, powdered) grown on a single indoor farm at the University of Mississippi by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). As the name suggests, the NIDA organization was not established with medical research in mind. For decades, most of the studies that did get approved had to be designed in a way that implied they were researching pot to determine its supposed dangers, not benefits.
UCLA Attempts to Finally Put Medical Marijuana to the Test
UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative has stepped forward in the quest towards running high-quality human clinical trials of cannabis. The initiative is “one of the first academic programs in the world dedicated to the study of cannabis,” NBC News reports and is hoping to be the first to perform a study on cannabis’ effect on treating patients with long-term histories of opioid use.
The study, designed by professor Edythe London, tests the efficacy of different combination levels of the cannabinoids THC and CBD, the two main active ingredients (psychoactive and non-psychoactive respectively) of cannabis. The study aims to explore the evidence supporting pot as a treatment for chronic pain, including the option that its “synergistic properties” in combination with opioids could result in a hybrid treatment course that uses lower levels of painkillers.
London told NBC News that “the study aims to find out which combination ‘produces the most good,’ with the goal of reducing the test subjects’ pain and their use of opioids—not to mention stemming the national epidemic of opioid abuse.” By studying subjects who are transitioning from opioid use to cannabis use (or a combination of the two), the UCLA team hopes to explore the findings that “states, where medical cannabis is legal, have lower rates of opioid overdoses.”
Quelling the Opioid Epidemic
The NIDA reports that non-methadone synthetic opioid deaths (including from Schedule II drugs like fentanyl) alone skyrocketed to 30,000 in 2017, contributing to the total of more than 72,000 drug overdoses last year alone. Overzealous opioid sales and prescription practices have been pegged as the originator of this pain pill crisis, and researchers like London seem to be convinced that a crucial step to stemming the tide of OD deaths is to limit access to pain pills, to begin with. With at least 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain alone, some sort of treatment must step in to take the place of opioids, a treatment that may very well be or involve cannabis. The sooner studies like UCLA’s get approved (requires both the FDA and the DEA) and funded (something they’re trying to accomplish through philanthropy, crowdfunding, and grants), then the sooner the truth is weeded out. Better for everyone, patients and all.