The National Institutes of Health has announced plans to fund the nation’s first-ever long-term study on whether medical cannabis can affect the use of opioid pain medications. The proposed study is being hailed by members of the medical marijuana community as a welcome step toward wider research on cannabis for chronic pain and many other conditions. But it comes at a time when the Department of Justice and other administration entities remain unyielding in their opposition to cannabis research and legalization.
The Opioid Epidemic Takes a Toll
The opioid epidemic continues to make headlines as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Runaway opioid prescribing has created a scenario in which the number of opioid prescriptions written each year in some states actually exceeds the population. Although these medications are usually legitimately prescribed for chronic pain conditions, they can quickly become as addictive as their street cousin, heroin. And because they act on the body’s natural opioid receptors in the brain and central nervous system, an overdose can easily depress breathing and heart rate to the point of death.
Medical Cannabis: A Safer Alternative?
Advocates of medical marijuana say wider access to cannabis products could change all that. Federally funded research on the applications of cannabis for treating chronic pain has been limited due to federal restrictions that keep marijuana on the list of highly restricted, dangerous drugs. However, private sector and academic research reveal that cannabis products, especially those high in cannabidiol (CBD), can be highly effective against chronic pain.
A recent study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with the medical cannabis community HelloMD, revealed that 93 percent of nearly 3,000 participants said they reduced the number of opioids they took when using cannabis, and 81 percent stated they found cannabis to be more effective than opioids when used alone.
The new NIH-funded study, approved in August 2017, aims to investigate those claims. The five-year, $3.8-million grant, awarded to New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, will track 250 HIV-positive patients and 250 HIV-negative ones to determine what effect, if any, cannabis has on their use of opioids for chronic pain.
Government Opposition Restricts Marijuana Research
The NIH-funded study comes at a time when views about medical cannabis are deeply polarized. To date, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes — a position protected by the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment passed by the House and Senate in 2014. But despite appeals to remove it or at least modify the classification, marijuana remains on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule I list of highly addictive and harmful drugs.
Though the DEA so far has made no move to reschedule or declassify marijuana from Schedule I, the agency took steps in 2016 to make it easier to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. Since then, 25 entities have applied for permits to grow marijuana for use in studies like the one funded by the NIH. Those applications have to be approved by the Department of Justice, currently headed by Trump-appointee Jeff Sessions, and to date, no action has been taken on any of them. Sessions himself continues to be the voice of the administration’s hard line on marijuana, even urging a rollback on the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment itself.
The NIH decision to support long-term research on how medical marijuana could impact opioid use comes at a time when opioid abuse is at an all-time high, costing lives and stressing community resources. If the research demonstrates that medical marijuana offers a safer and more effective alternative for chronic pain conditions, it could serve as the game-changer the medical marijuana industry needs to overcome the climate of opposition by officials at the highest levels of government.