Earlier this week, the National Institute of Health (NIH) was awarded a $3.8 million federal grant that will allow researchers to study the effects of medical marijuana on opioid use. The five-year investigation will be conducted by scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System, and is a major milestone in cannabis-related research and the fight against America’s ongoing opioid crisis.
The study will aim to develop peer-reviewed evidence to back up the growing number of anecdotal claims that medical cannabis helps chronic pain patients reduce opioid abuse and alleviate their pain in a safer way. Scientists will use medical-grade marijuana grown in New York, an important shift from the low-quality “research grade” green that federal contractors are cultivating.
To standardize their research, the study will focus exclusively on chronic pain patients suffering from HIV. The team will enroll 250 HIV-positive and HIV-negative adults who use opioids and have received approval from their physician for medical marijuana. According to Chinazo Cunningham, associate chief of general internal medicine and the principal investigator on the grant, his team hopes that solid evidence will provide clarity to this complex issue.
“As state and federal governments grapple with the 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,” Cunningham said.
Selected participants will partake in biweekly online questionnaires that focus on their pain levels, as well as the medical and illegal use of both marijuana and opioids. Every three months, the subjects will also submit in-person urine and blood samples to the research team.
This will be the first time that medical marijuana is scientifically examined as a treatment to curb opioid use, and comes at a time where abuse of prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl are rising at an alarming rate. Last week, Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic as a national emergency, freeing up even more federal funding to help combat the use and sale of highly addictive opioids.
The White House’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis failed to address medical marijuana in their public statement to the president, despite receiving thousands of public comments relating to marijuana. However, the recent news of NIH funding for medical cannabis research adds a glimmer of hope to a bleak situation, and could ultimately solidify a role for medical green in the ongoing battle against the nation's alarming opioid epidemic.