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U.S. Government to Investigate Whether Medical Marijuana Reduces Opioid Use

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a grant to researchers to investigate medical marijuana’s effect on opioid consumption.

A new study funded by the United States government will look into whether medical marijuana could help address the nation’s opioid crisis. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year, $3.8 million grant to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System to investigate whether medical marijuana reduces opioid use among adults with chronic pain.

Chronic or severe pain affects nearly 50 million American adults. Many times, physicians prescribe pioids to relieve symptoms. Opioids carry a high risk of abuse, addiction, and overdose, with higher doses potentially leading to respiratory depression and death. Every day in the U.S., 78 people die from an opioid-related overdose. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year pulled one major opioid painkiller off the market because of its high risk, and New Hampshire is currently suing the manufacturer of OxyContin for its role in the state’s opioid epidemic.

Evidence indicates that cannabis could be a safer pain management agent. Cannabis has never caused a deadly overdose, and a recent study found 92 percent of pain patients prefer cannabis to opioids. Studies also suggest that access to legal medical marijuana reduces the intake of opioids. Cannabinoids have even shown to be potentially beneficial for helping those addicted to opioids by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

“There is a lack of information about the impact of medical marijuana on opioid use in those with chronic pain,” said Chinazo Cunningham, associate chief of general internal medicine at Einstein and Montefiore and principal researchers on the study, in a press release. “We hope this study will fill in the gaps and provide doctors and patients with some much needed guidance.”

Cunningham and her colleagues will use real medical cannabis from licensed dispensaries in New York. Their study will involve 250 HIV-positive and HIV-negative adults with chronic pain who use opioids and have been certified by physicians to use medical marijuana.

The NIH grant, “Does medical cannabis reduce opioid analgesics in HIV+ and HIV- adults with pain?” will allow Cunningham and colleagues to analyze the patients over an 18-month period. All will fill out web-based questionnaires on their pain levels and use of marijuana and opioids every two weeks. Every three months, they’ll provide urine and blood samples. Select subjects will participate in in-depth interviews regarding their perceptions on how marijuana has affected their use of opioids.

While marijuana remains illegal federally, 29 U.S. states and Washington D.C. have passed their own laws allowing the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. All medical marijuana states include HIV and/or chronic pain as qualifying conditions.

“As state and federal governments grapple with complex issues surrounding opioids and medical marijuana, we hope to provide evidence-based recommendations that will help shape responsible and effective healthcare practices and public policies,” said Cunningham.

Learn about the research that has already been done on cannabis for chronic pain and HIV by visiting our education page.

Post by Eve Ripley

Eve is a writer specializing in cannabis education and editorials related to cannabis industry news.

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