A government health agency is funding the first-ever study on medical marijuana’s impact on opioid abuse

By Trey Williams

Researchers hope to provide evidence-based recommendations on medical marijuana that will help shape health care practices and public policies

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding the first-ever, long-term study to research the impacts of medical marijuana on opioid use.

The NIH has awarded a five-year $3.8 million grant to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System to study whether medical marijuana reduces opioid use among adults with chronic pain, including people with HIV.

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

The study comes in the midst of a rising opioid epidemic and increased interest in legal medical and recreational marijuana. There has been debate over the possible use of medical marijuana as a substitute for opioids, as well as whether the drug should be legal at all.

President Donald Trump has stated his intent to tackle the country’s opioid crisis, on Thursday saying the White House would declare it a national emergency.

Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions, while vehemently opposing marijuana legalization, also rejects the idea that medical marijuana could solve the opioid crisis.

In prepared remarks for a speech back in March, Sessions said: “I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.”

Albert Einstein College of Medicine says researchers have never studied whether using medical marijuana over time reduces the use of opioids, and that there are no studies on how the specific chemical compounds of marijuana—tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)—affect health outcomes like pain, function and quality of life. Most studies have focused on illicit, rather than medical, marijuana, and have reported negative effects.

There are a multitude of cannabinoids that make up cannabis, the most prominent being THC and CBD. While the effects of THC are highly psychoactive, CBDs have little to no psychoactive effect. Some researchers and companies have been exploring the effects of individual cannabinoids in an effort to better understand them. Denver-based company Ebbu LLC is seeking to produce cannabis products that by extracting certain cannabinoids would give users the same result every time—whether its something to make them laugh, stay up late or put them to sleep.

Some U.S. senators took a step earlier in the summer toward easing up on medical marijuana. U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) introduced a bill that would end the federal prohibition of medical marijuana and take steps to improve research.

“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 health care practices and public policies,” Dr. Cunningham said in a statement.

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