Cannabis Instead of Opioids for Pain? UCLA Researchers to Test Painkilling Properties of Marijuana

The randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled study will investigate marijuana’s potential for reducing pain.

Researchers from the new Cannabis Research Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles are setting out to test cannabis’ true effectiveness as a painkiller. Led by Dr. Jeffrey Chen, the UCLA researchers intend to compile in-depth research on cannabis and its effects on pain, including its potential as a safer alternative to opioids.

An estimated 25.3 million American adults (11.2 percent) experience chronic pain, according to the National Institutes of Health, and nearly 40 million experience severe levels of pain.

While anecdotal evidence and studies conducted so far have shown great promise of medical marijuana for pain, scientists are still learning how and why it provides its benefits. Regulations associated with marijuana’s Schedule I classification under federal law have long made it difficult for researchers to conduct truly rigorous studies.

At the same time, increasing numbers of patients are using cannabis specifically for pain management. Since California first became the first to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, 29 more states and Washington, D.C. have followed. All include pain as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

“The public consumption of cannabis has already far outpaced our scientific understanding,” Chen recently told NBC News. “We desperately need to catch up.”

The Cannabis Research Initiative is one of the first academic programs in the world focused on studying cannabis. Its new study, designed by psychiatry and pharmacology professor Edythe London, will test different cannabis strains and varying cannabinoid makeups to determine which combination provides the most relief.

The objective is to examine whether marijuana’s pain-relieving properties can reduce the use of opioids, a class of narcotic drugs commonly prescribed by doctors for pain. While marijuana has never caused a fatal overdose, opioid overdoses killed a record 42,000 Americans in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 40 percent involved a prescription opioid.

The UCLA researchers are currently working to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). While having already received funds from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, they are also actively pursuing additional funding through private donors and some federal and state resources.

To avoid conflicts of interests, University of California policy prohibits donations from those who stand to make a profit from cannabis.

“We’re not trying to do pro-cannabis research or anti-cannabis research. We’re just trying to do good science,” said Chen.

pain doctors cannabis

Testing Cannabis as an Alternative to Opioids

Research into cannabis’ impact on opioid use so far has been encouraging.

States with legal marijuana have been found to have fewer opioid prescriptions, and a study published this summer found that nearly three-of-four chronic pain patients opted to use cannabis in place of the opioids they were prescribed.

Studies have also found evidence that legal access to medical marijuana is associated with reduced opioid intake and opioid-related hospitalizations, and fewer deaths from opioid overdose.

Medical Marijuana for Pain

Learn more about what research has so far discovered about the therapeutic potential of cannabis through our research and education page. Keep up with the latest cannabis-related studies by regularly visiting our news page.