Medical Marijuana. So, What Does the Research Really Say?

August 15, 2009 – Since beginning my tenure with ASA, the question I am most frequently asked is, “So, what does the research really say about the benefits of smoking marijuana?”

It’s understandable that Members of Congress, their staff, and even advocates who support medical marijuana don’t know or can’t find all the research. The results of these research trials are rarely reported by media. And, much of what is reported concerns the exaggerated harms that may be associated with smoking large amounts of marijuana by the non-medical user — which is often not the case for individuals who smoke cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

It can be difficult – but not impossible – to locate information about the safety and therapeutic value of cannabis. The unfortunate result of the federal prohibition of cannabis is limited clinical research to investigate the safety and efficacy of cannabis to control symptoms of serious and chronic illness. As noted by the American College of Physicians cannabis research is “hindered by a complicated federal approval process, limited availability of research grade marijuana, and the debate over legalization.”

So, what does the research really say?

Since 2007, the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) has sponsored four double-blind, placebo-controlled, FDA-approved clinical trials which demonstrate that smoking cannabis (marijuana), even in low doses, effectively alleviates the neuropathy pain associated with HIV/AIDS. So there is no mistake, let me repeat that: smoking marijuana, even in low doses, effectively controls the neuropathy pain associated with HIV/AIDS. The results of these clinical trials have been reviewed and published by reputable medical journals.

In February 2007, Neurology published the results of a Phase I clinical trial which concluded smoked cannabis was well tolerated and effectively relieved chronic neuropathic pain from HIV-associated sensory neuropathy. The findings are comparable to oral drugs used for chronic neuropathic pain.
In November 2007, Anesthesiology published results of a clinical trial conducted by researchers at UCSDCenter for Pain Medicine which concluded that normal volunteers subjected to chemically induced pain which mimics neuropathy also responded to medium doses of smoked cannabis.

In June 2008, the Journal of Pain, published the results of a clinical trial conducted by researchers at UC Davis which also concluded that even low doses of smoked cannabis can be effective in managing hard-to-treat neuropathic pain. In fact, investigators found that low- and high-dose cannabis produced similar levels of pain relief, reducing the intensity of the severe nerve pain. The researchers specifically noted that cannabis not only fights pain itself but also interacts with opiate-based painkillers to increase their effectiveness, particularly in neuropathic pain. They also note that using isolated synthetic cannabinoids such as THC (dronabinol) did not provide the same degree of efficacy as a whole-plant preparation of cannabis.

In August 2008, Neuropsychopharmacology, published the results of a Phase II clinical trial conducted by researchers at UCSD School of Medicine which concluded, once again, that smoked cannabis was generally well tolerated and effective when added to concomitant analgesic therapy in patients with HIV-related neuropathy pain not adequately controlled by other pain-relievers.
Now, go spread the word!

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