Evidence of the effectiveness of cannabis as a medical treatment has been slowly emerging, but continues to lag as medical marijuana use expands.
Researchers at the University of New Mexico used Releaf, an application for monitoring the effects of the breadth of available cannabis-based products, and found strong evidence that cannabis can significantly alleviate pain.
Jacob Miguel Vigil, founder of the Medical Cannabis Research Fund and a lead researcher on the study, said he and his team had been working with the Releaf team for two years, and the app is loaded with 100 conditions and about three dozen symptoms to report.
"Obviously, cannabis is very different than the standardized type of medication in that is always variable," Vigil said. "It was once living. That is an inherent challenge for patients in that they can never obtain the exact same thing twice. This app was developed to allow patients to record characteristics of what they were taking and to record different types of symptom intensity levels, so they could reflect and presumably make better decisions in their purchasing."
Drop in pain suffering
The average user, according to the study reported in the latest “Complementary Therapies in Medicine,” experienced a three-point drop in pain suffering on a 0-10 point scale immediately following cannabis consumption. Symptom relief was reported in about 95 percent of cannabis administration sessions across different types of pain. The research, which also notes the relatively minimal negative side effects of cannabis, contrasts using cannabinoids with the dangers of overprescribing and increased usage of opioids. Due to the treatment's immediate pain intensity reduction, Vigil compared it to a mid-level analgesic or pain reliever.
"Obviously, pain is an important topic. It’s the most costly health condition that we face in the United States, coupled with this manmade opioid epidemic," Vigil said. "Obviously, there are a lot of people out there that could benefit by being knowledgeable about alternative pain medications."
Dr. Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who directs the longest-running study of medical cannabis use in the United States, says marijuana's components can help with the pain.
“One of the things about pain is that very often pain is caused by inflammatory processes,” she told Harvard Magazine earlier this month. “If we can get behind or in front of actually the inflammatory process, maybe we can help alleviate the pain. CBD is a particularly good anti-inflammatory.”
Pitfalls for use?
Users reported the greatest analgesic responses from the whole dried cannabis flower, or ‘buds,’ and particularly cannabis with relatively high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC. However, Vigil cautioned that other, less natural methods of consuming cannabis contained their own pitfalls.
"My concern is anytime you’re introducing a solvent or you’re engaging in some extraction method, which is used for edibles and oils and everything but the flower, you introduce the possibility of adulterating it with something that is harmful," Vigil said. "That’s probably why some folks have experienced some type of negative symptoms after using cannabis. Who knows what is in it and how it was extracted or isolated? There’s not a lot of transparency or standardization in this industry yet."
Vigil acknowledged the limitations inherent to the reliability of user-reported data from Releaf, but noted the statistical benefits of using such a large population of users throughout the country. The research team limited the data to those who uploaded information to the app seconds after their dosage rather than those who waited longer, to clarify reporting accuracy.
The Medical Cannabis Research Fund was created by Vigil to solicit private donations for objective research, but admitted it "is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, in this (research) area." He said academia has yet to acknowledge the enormity of cannabis as an area of inquiry. Vigil also noted he had an upcoming meeting with the university's vice president for research to discuss the importance of further studies on cannabis.
"It’s been difficult trying to solicit funds for various reasons to do objective research that people are desperately needing," Vigil said. "We have experienced what I consider the benefit of having our work cited by legislators, by governors and having it presented in United States testimony in ways that our objective is being met. My personal objective is to responsibly modify the laws according to the actual risks and benefits of cannabis. And that will allow other types of scientists like me to begin to do the hard science."
Vigil said research has shown some "definitive conclusions" about changes in population-level usage, remarking that cannabis usage does not appear to be increasing in teens, rather those over age 45 and those with chronic health conditions.
"I think greater education is important," Vigil said. "Unfortunately, we’re experiencing as a society a number of epidemics including increasing rates of chronic pain, depression and anxiety. These so happen to be the most widely used reasons or conditions patients report using cannabis to treat. There seems to be some inherent benefit for a lot of people once they consume and experiment with cannabis."
He was also critical of contemporary practices of prescribing medications touted by pharmaceutical reps one after another, especially those that have significant side effects.
"There’s a lack of understanding in even the majority of our health providers," Vigil said. "We are in an absolute state of ignorance right now and reliance on a commercialized industry. It’s not the healthiest place to be and certainly, there’s a lot of room for improvement."
Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.