Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine did a comprehensive review of the information available on the use of marijuana. The study looked at research published since 1999, and they came up with a number of conclusions. One of the most important findings is the current lack of good scientific information on marijuana. There is a clear need for good scientific research to guide healthcare professionals on the risks and benefits associated with marijuana use. Currently, to study marijuana or any of its derivatives, the federal bureaucratic hoops one must go through makes it extremely difficult to perform. The information available and the quality of the research at this point are limited. The conclusions are based mostly upon case report studies with limited controls.
The Complexity of THC and Marijuana
In Minnesota, medical marijuana is available to treat several specific conditions, and this year chronic pain was added to the list of approved conditions. The recent study also supports the idea that marijuana may be helpful to treat some people with chronic pain. For some it seems the non-THC (THC is the component that is responsible for the “high”) may help for pain. Since there are multiple causes of pain, it definitely is not indicated for everyone. Further, no studies have been done to determine what types of pain may be helped by components of marijuana, and it is not clear which of the 80 or more different compounds in marijuana are helpful. It is also known to be helpful for nausea from chemotherapy, and spasticity in multiple sclerosis. Marijuana may help in appetite with HIV, and there is limited evidence for help with bowel disorders, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease.
There are multiple potential harms that may be caused by marijuana. There is strong evidence that its use can lead to schizophrenia and psychosis, especially among young and frequent users. It may also lead to depressive disorders. The claim that it can make you a better driver is simply false, as statistics have shown that it leads to inattentive driving, a main contributor to traffic accidents. In pregnancy, use can lead to low birth weight in infants. Smoking pot can also cause and worsen any respiratory condition. There is weak evidence that smoking marijuana can increase the risk of heart attacks. One can also develop an addiction to marijuana. Conclusions cannot be drawn with regards to school achievement, unemployment, or social function and marijuana use.
Understanding It All
The overall scientific conclusion so far is that marijuana may have some reasonable medical uses. However, the scientific research on the compound is extremely limited at the moment. In the United States, it has been classified as a compound with no medical value and harmful to society. What needs to happen is that national legislation is needed to reclassify marijuana as a controlled substance, then good medical research can be done to determine what compounds in this plant are helpful or harmful. Once good research is done, then the use of compounds can occur with everyone understanding appropriate risks and benefits like with any other drug now available.
This past Monday, Minnesota expanded its medical cannabis program to include individuals who are suffering from severe, chronic and intractable pain. Opening the doors to these patients could bring relief to thousands of people whose pain has not been quelled by traditional treatment techniques.
Before the program opened up to intractable pain, the Office of Medical Cannabis announced that they had 1,827 active patients receiving medical marijuana. Although the numbers haven’t been released yet, likely because it will take some time to sift through all the applications and medical material, state planners project that the number of participants may jump to 5,000 or more.
Proponents hope that the influx of patients will ensure those in pain will get the treatment they need, while current members hope their presence will help lower what some feel are extremely high prices.
Minnesota is one of 25 states that have legalized medicinal marijuana, and the vast majority of those states list chronic pain as a qualifying condition. Studies have also shown that overdoses have fallen in those states with medicinal marijuana, and doctors in those states are writing fewer prescriptions for potentially dangerous opioids.
Hopefully those who truly need relief will be approved and find help through the state’s medical marijuana program. I hope the state reinvests some of the profits into future studies to ensure we are doing everything in our power to keep our patients safe, and so we can better understand how cannabis and pain are related.
For more information about the program, including a list of eligible conditions or how to apply, click here.
The Minnesota medical community is, according to January 12, 2016 article in the Star Tribune, not sold on medical marijuana. In reality, this is not very surprising. There are probably many reasons, but the most obvious reason is the idea that medical professionals like to base all their care on a scientific basis. From taking a history, to performing an exam and determining the tests and treatment, medicine is more of a science and depends on evidence for diagnosis and treatment of problems. If there is not evidence to support a treatment, medical professionals are trained to be skeptical of its use and purpose. Currently, medical marijuana definitely falls into this category.
Most important to the debate on medical marijuana is that there is very limited scientific research supporting many of the claims of usefulness. The research with regards to the management of most medical problems is related to a few small studies, and there are hardly any definitive studies that show significant positive value, and the study designs are often not blinded/controlled with any large number of participants. For pain management there is mostly incidental case report-type studies without mentioning which specific cannaboids are effective. Since cannabis plants contain over 100 different cannaboids and other compounds, using so many chemicals at once in a relative uncontrolled mixture is not a scientific approach to treatment. In a way it is like throwing a grenade at a problem and hoping everything does not blow up in your face.
Fixing The Marijuana Issues
The proponents of medical marijuana often bring to the table multiple examples of the wonderful help that various individuals have experienced with its use. However these are individual cases, and not necessarily what will occur with every individual. When a new drug is brought to market, we all want to have extensive testing performed to make sure it is safe, to ensure it performs correctly and that the same effect will occur each time it is taken. With medical marijuana we do not know most of these things. We have no idea what exactly is in the extracts, and we have no studies on how animals or humans will react to the compounds over time. Any other drug besides marijuana with this lack of scientific research would never even be considered to be used widely as an intervention. It is not surprising most medical professionals have a huge degree of skepticism about certifying patients to use medical marijuana and endorsing treatment.
In pain management there are many treatments available that have been shown to be reasonably effective. A pain management expert often can help a person through the maze of management options and help find an effective plan. There are a portion of patients with extremely complex problems without great solutions to control symptoms at this time. Failure of standard treatments may be a reason to want to try medical marijuana. Those who do go this route need to know at this time it should be considered truly an experimental treatment, and that the short and long term side effects and problems are not really known. There are a huge number cannaboids contained in medical marijuana, and while some may be helpful, others can be harmful. It may be a significant risk to use these compounds and until they are better studied and understood, and it is unlikely that the medical field will endorse such treatment without serious reservation.
Medical marijuana for intractable pain is now on the agenda for Minnesota. The commissioner for the Department of Health is now evaluating whether to add intractable pain as a condition that will be included in its medical marijuana program. The commissioner received recommendations against adding pain from the medical advisory committee. There will be a public hearing this week and comments can be sent directly to the Department of Health, at email@example.com.
In Minnesota, intractable pain would most likely be handled differently than any other diagnosis for medical marijuana. Already, the medical panel has advised that it be restricted to people over the age of 21. Further, they want to make sure that anyone prescribed is not pregnant and that conventional treatments for pain have already failed.
What is Intractable Pain?
In Minnesota, intractable chronic pain is a legal definition set up by the legislature in the 1990’s. It means pain caused by some medical condition that is unresponsive to normal medical care including medication, physical therapy, and other management. If a patient has intractable pain, then they qualify for the use of opioid medication for management of symptoms. One other component of chronic intractable pain is that it must be certified by two different physicians. Unless new legislation is passed, chronic intractable pain would need to be certified by two physicians, not just one provider in order to qualify for the medical marijuana program.
Over the next month the Minnesota Health Commissioner is going to make a decision on adding intractable pain as a condition for medical marijuana, and it will affect both patients and healthcare providers. If you want to have input on the decision, now is the time. Past history has shown that the most vocal and persuasive voices will influence the decision on what diagnoses are on the list to receive medical marijuana. Mothers with children that had severe seizures were the main force that started the legalization in Minnesota. Patients and medical providers will be the force that determines if intractable pain is added to Minnesota’s list of conditions that are accepted for medical marijuana.