App Helps Document Effectiveness of Medical Cannabis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Two innovative studies have found evidence that medical marijuana can provide significant relief from a wide range of symptoms associated with chronic pain, including insomnia, seizures, depression, anxiety and fatigue.

Unlike many clinical trials that evaluate a small number of patients with surveys, researchers at the University of New Mexico relied on data from the Releaf App, a free mobile software program that collected user-entered, real-time information from over 2,800 people on their use of cannabis and its effects.

"If the results found in our studies can be extrapolated to the general population, cannabis could systematically replace multi-billion dollar medication industries around the world. It is likely already beginning to do so," said co-author Jacob Vigil, PhD, a UNM psychology professor.

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In the first study, published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, users reported an average symptom reduction of nearly 4 points on a 1-10 scale after the consumption of cannabis in various forms, including vaporizers, joints, oils and topicals.

Twenty-seven different health conditions were evaluated, from inflammation and tremors to muscle and nerve pain. Over 94 percent of cannabis users reported some type of symptom relief, with patients suffering from anxiety and depression having the greatest improvement.

“Clinically and statistically significant reductions in patient-reported symptom severity levels existed in every single symptom category, suggesting that cannabis may be an effective substitute for several classes of medications with potentially dangerous and uncomfortable side effects and risky polypharmaceutical interactions, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants,” said Vigil.

“Our results indicate that patients report greater symptom relief for treating agitation/irritability, anxiety, depression, excessive appetite, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, gastrointestinal pain, stress, and tremors than they do for treating back pain. Patients reported less symptom relief for treating impulsivity, headache, and nerve pain as compared to relief for treating back pain.

 source: frontiers in pharmacology

source: frontiers in pharmacology

The second study, recently published in the journal Medicines, focused on the use of cannabis flower (also known as “buds”) in treating insomnia. Over 400 patients self-reported their symptoms using the Releaf app. Researchers found the use of pipes and vaporizers to ingest cannabis was associated with greater symptom relief and fewer negative side effects than the use of joints. Cannabidiol (CBD) was also associated with greater symptom relief than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana that causes euphoria.

A major weakness of both studies is that there was no control group or use of a placebo. Participants were also more likely to have previously used cannabis and may have been biased when reporting on their own symptoms. But UNM researchers say their findings are more representative of what cannabis users will actually experience.

“Observational studies are more appropriate than experimental research designs for measuring how patients choose to consume cannabis and the effects of those choices,” said Vigil. “By collecting massive amounts of patient-entered information on actual cannabis used under real-life circumstances we are able to measure why patients consume cannabis, the types of products that patients use, and the immediate and longer-term effects of such use.”

In addition to its therapeutic benefits, cannabis use was associated with frequent, although not serious side effects. Patients reported more positive feelings (relaxed, peaceful, comfy) than they did negative ones (paranoid, confused, headache).  

"If the short-term risk-benefit profile of cannabis found in our studies reflects its longer-term therapeutic potential, substitution of cannabis for traditional pharmaceuticals could reduce the risk of dangerous drug interactions and the costs associated with taking multiple medications by allowing patients to treat a constellation of comorbidities with a single treatment modality,” said co-author Sarah See Stith, PhD, a UNM economics professor.

Marijuana Use by Baby Boomers Growing

By Pat Anson, Editor

Marijuana use by middle-aged and older adults in the U.S. has grown significantly over the past decade, in part because more baby boomers are seeking relief from neuropathy and other painful conditions associated with aging.

In a survey of over 17,600 adults aged 50 and older, researchers found that 9 percent of adults aged 50-64 reported marijuana use in the past year, double the percentage that used it a decade earlier. Nearly 3 percent of adults 65 and older also reported marijuana use, seven times the number that used it a decade ago.

 DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

The 2015-2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health asked respondents about their marijuana use, including when they first used it and whether they used it in the past year. The researchers also looked at several health issues, including substance use and chronic disease.

"Marijuana has been shown to have benefits in treating certain conditions that affect older adults, including neuropathic pain and nausea,” said lead author Benjamin Han, MD, MPH, a professor of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care at NYU School of Medicine.

“However, certain older adults may be at heightened risk for adverse effects associated with marijuana use, particularly if they have certain underlying chronic diseases or are also engaged in unhealthy substance use.”

Han and his colleagues say adults who used marijuana were more likely to also report alcohol use disorder, nicotine dependence, cocaine use, and misuse of prescription medications (including opioids and sedatives) than non-users.

The new findings, published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, builds on an earlier study by the same researchers that found a significant increase in cannabis use among adults over 50.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use. Although today's marijuana users are more likely to be young adults, the baby boomer generation is unique, having more experience with recreational use of drugs than previous generations. Many baby boomers first tried marijuana when they were 21 or younger.

“The baby boomer generation grew up during a period of significant cultural change, including a surge in popularity of marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s. We're now in a new era of changing attitudes around marijuana, and as stigma declines and access improves, it appears that baby boomers -- many of whom have prior experience smoking marijuana -- are increasingly using it," said Han.

Many older adults who used marijuana in the past year (15% of users aged 50-64 and nearly 23% of those 65 and older) reported that a doctor had recommended it to them.

A recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that most older Americans think marijuana is effective for pain relief, anxiety and nausea and should be available to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.

Study Finds Racial Bias in Drug Testing

By Pat Anson, Editor

African-American patients on long-term opioid therapy are more likely to be drug tested by their doctors and significantly more likely to have their opioid prescriptions stopped if an illicit drug is detected, according to a new study.

Yale researchers analyzed the health records of more than 15,000 patients who received opioids from the Veterans Administration between 2000 and 2010. About half of the VA patients were white and half black.

Over 25 percent of the black patients had a urine drug test within the first six months of opioid treatment, compared to nearly 16% of whites.

When patients tested positive for either marijuana or cocaine, the vast majority – 90 percent -- continued to receive their opioid prescriptions. But there were significant differences in how patients were treated depending on their race.

Black patients that tested positive for marijuana were twice as likely as whites to have opioid therapy stopped and three times more likely to have opioids discontinued if cocaine was detected in their urine.

The findings, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, are consistent with previous research showing disparities in how blacks and whites are treated by the healthcare system in general, and particularly when opioids are involved.

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“There is no mandate to immediately stop a patient from taking prescription opioids if they test positive for illicit drugs,” said first author Julie Gaither, PhD, a pediatrics instructor at the Yale School of Medicine.

“It’s our feeling that without clear guidance, physicians are falling back on ingrained stereotypes, including racial stereotyping. When faced with evidence of illicit drug use, clinicians are more likely to discontinue opioids when a patient is black, even though research has shown that whites are the group at highest risk for overdose and death.”

A 2016 study of emergency room patients found that blacks were significantly less likely to get an opioid for abdominal pain than whites. Another study of white medical students and residents found that half had at least one false belief about black patients. Those that did were more likely to report lower pain ratings for black patients.

Drug Testing for Marijuana Not Recommended

The 2016 CDC opioid guideline encourages doctors to conduct urine drug tests before starting opioid therapy and at least annually after patients start taking the drugs. But the guideline also urges physicians not to test opioid patients for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people high.

Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear. For example, experts noted that there might be uncertainty about the clinical implications of a positive urine drug test for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC).” the guideline states.

"Clinicians should not dismiss patients from care based on a urine drug test result because this could constitute patient abandonment and could have adverse consequences for patient safety, potentially including the patient obtaining opioids from alternative sources and the clinician missing opportunities to facilitate treatment for substance use disorder."

Another factor to consider is the unreliability of urine drug tests. As PNN has reported, “point-of care” (POC) urine drug tests, the kind widely used in doctor’s offices, frequently giving false positive or false negative results for marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. 

A 2015 study found that 21% of POC tests for marijuana and 12% of those for cocaine produced a false positive result.

A Reality Check for CBD Oil

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the anti-seizure medication Epidiolex has attracted a lot of new attention for CBD (cannabidiol). But enthusiasm was already on the rise. CBD is being promoted as a “new medical elixir” and marketed in everything from cosmetics to bottled water.

CBD was isolated in marijuana in 1940 and its chemical structure was characterized in 1963. It does not have euphoric effects and is increasingly being used in oils, edibles and other forms to treat medical conditions such as pain.

Last November the World Health Organization released its “Cannabidiol Pre-Preview Report”) stating that “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.” The WHO report found “no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”

Last month the FDA approved Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, to treat seizures caused by two rare forms of childhood epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gestaut syndrome.  It was the first -- and so far only -- marijuana-based drug to be approved by the agency.

“In terms of solid evidence, the one thing we really know about CBD is that it can be helpful for rare childhood seizure disorders,” Ryan Vandrey, PhD, a cannabis researcher and associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, told Health.com. “There’s not yet sufficient evidence to support its use for any other reason.”

This is not for lack of effort. Zynebra Pharmaceuticals recently tested a topical CBD product for osteoarthritis knee pain with mixed results. The Phase 2 clinical study did not meet its primary endpoint of reducing the average pain score, although there were some indications it improved function and reduced pain severity.

A small clinical trial of CBD for Crohn’s disease in Israel in 2017 was also negative, finding “CBD was safe but had no beneficial effects.”

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GW Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Epidiolex and Sativex, conducted a clinical trial in 2012 on CBD oil for pain due to spinal cord injury. The outcome was disappointing. The treatment arm of the study (55 subjects) and placebo arm (59 subjects) showed essentially the same level of improvement in neuropathic pain.

A 2015 study on CBD extracts for childhood epilepsy had puzzling results. Researchers reported in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior that “relocating to Colorado had a significant effect on response rates.” Drugs are not normally affected by zip code or time zone.

A recent review of studies on CBD oil and other forms of cannabis for the management of neurologic disorders was more positive, finding “there is strongest evidence to indicate benefits in treatment of spasticity and neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis.”

CBD Safety Questions

But there are also cautions. Thorsten Rudroff, PhD, a professor of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University, told Neurology Advisor that more studies of CBD were needed.

“While cannabis seems to be effective for the treatment of MS symptoms like pain and spasticity, there are so many unknowns. For example, we don't know much about interactions with other drugs. Also, based on my own research, it seems that cannabis may further impair cognitive function in people with MS, especially in older adults,” Rudroff said.

There are safety issues as well. CBD oil has a good safety profile, but according to Food Safety Magazine, CBD oil products have problems with labeling accuracy, product quality and contaminants.

People with serious medical problems who want to use CBD oil need to reliably source a quality product. Medical users may have allergies, chemical sensitivities and, in the case of cancer patients or people with autoimmune disorders, a compromised immune system. For such people, purity and dose matter.

In addition, there are drug interactions to be aware of. Medline lists nearly a dozen medications that potentially interact with CBD, such as amitriptyline, ibuprofen and meloxicam, which are frequently used by people with health problems.

The decision to use CBD oil for medical purposes needs to be based on science, not marketing. As David Cassaret, MD, notes in his book, Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana: “Medical marijuana is becoming too widespread, and the risks are too great, to leave the patient to fend for himself, and to let the buyer beware.”

At present, however, CBD oil is very much a buyer beware world. And the current hype is not helping.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Medical Cannabis Saved My Life

By Tammy Malone, Guest Columnist

People are talking about the addicts who are overdosing due to the opioid epidemic. Maybe we should start talking about the people who take opioids just to be able to function in life. 

Chronic intractable pain is a terrible way to live.  I know from experience that when you live in that much pain, you get to a point where all you can see is the ultimate way out.  Chronic pain is blinding.  It blinds you from life, family, joy and happiness.  It robs you of your hopes and dreams, until you are left withering, suffering and asking yourself, "Is this all my life is ever going to consist of? Living in so much pain?"

Too many of us are forced to live this way. For some, it is just too much to bear and suicide is our only way out.  

I can honestly say I have thought of this.  I was in so much pain I was contemplating suicide. Then I found a compassionate, caring group of doctors at a Tennessee pain clinic and my life was spared.  I was given shots, acupuncture, and massage.  I started an anti-inflammatory diet that helps slow down the destruction of Lyme disease, which is breaking down the joints and bones in my body. 

I was also put on a manageable dose of the opioid medication Demerol.  For 6 years, I had my  dreams back. I could see a future filled with family, friends,  joy and happiness. 

My body is still breaking down and nothing is going to change that.  I'm 53 and have the spine of a 90 year old.  I've shrunk over half an inch due to the discs deteriorating in my back. I've had 3 discs removed and my spine fused. Both knees are bone on bone.  My hip joints have deteriorated and my shoulders are blown out. I have fluid pockets in many of the joints, so it's not only painful but difficult to move. 

This destruction is not going to stop or get better, and I don't care how many Tylenol you throw at it,  it won't touch the pain.  But the pain management clinic helped me exist.  The opioids helped me function  and have a life beyond the blinding pain.  It gave me another 2,372 days with my family and friends. 

 TAMMY MALONE

TAMMY MALONE

Then came the War on Opioids. My doctor discussed the issues this war was having on his practice and what it meant for his patients. What it was going to ultimately mean for me.  To say I was in a panic is an understatement.  The thought of returning to a life in that much pain was unfathomable. 

I knew I had about 6 months before the do-gooders and Big Brother were going to push my doctor to start tapering me down. We discussed the other options, which we had or were already doing, and I cried.  I knew what was coming.  An unacceptable existence. 

This was the same time my parents had talked about getting me and my husband a plane ticket to Montana for a mini-vacation at our family cabin in the Rockies.  I really thought it was going to be my last family vacation. Because in a year,  I wouldn't be around. Suicide was already in my forethought. 

Although the stress of it all had begun to increase my pain levels, I agreed to go.  The night I stepped off the plane, my ankles swelled to the size of my calves and I couldn't walk. In 11 days at the family cabin, I lost 22 pounds due to inflammation,  elevation and the dryness of the mountain air. But I enjoyed the vacation and was happy I went. 

I also learned that Montana was a medical marijuana state.

Over the next couple of weeks back home in Tennessee, I asked my entire team of doctors, seven in all, what they thought about medical cannabis. With the exception of my neurologist, they all agreed it might be an option.  So we sold our dream property, got rid of our horses, sold everything in Tennessee and moved to Montana.  

Starting Medical Cannabis

I'd like to say everything is 100% better, but that wouldn't be accurate.  Moving to Montana and starting medical cannabis has been a challenge.  After an incredibly stressful time of trying to find doctors who would even look at my medical records, I was able to find a compassionate doctor in Helena named Dr. Mark Ibsen.  He went over my medical history, looked at my extensive list of medications, and reviewed my medical folders, MRI's and x-rays. After an hour of discussion, he agreed to take me on.  I cried with relief.  He was my lifeline.

It took 6 months to taper me off my pain meds and reduce the other 44 pills I took everyday down to 7.  Trying to find the right strain of medical cannabis hasn't been easy. I don't like to feel high or drugged (Demerol never made me feel that way), and finding the proper dosage of cannabis has been a challenge. 

Cannabis doesn't relieve the pain completely. While Demerol kept the pain manageable at a 3-4 level, cannabis keeps me at a level 6, which is uncomfortable most days.  Occasionally,  when I overdo things,  I can spend 24 to 36 hours at a level 8.5. Those are the days I wish I was still taking the opioids or at least had them as an option.

All in all, I was lucky.  I was lucky my parents thought to give me a vacation that unexpectedly showed me there was another medical option. I was lucky my husband agreed that we should sell everything and try Montana.  I was also lucky to find a compassionate doctor. It saved my life. 

But I also think about all the other pain patients who do not have options.  The "War on Opioids" has become a "War on Pain Patients."  I did some research and found the opioid overdose numbers being publicized include all overdoses from heroin.  These are addicts who are dying, not pain patients.

Not too long ago, I had a supposed friend call me an addict because she had preconceived idea of how I was living my life.  That taking pain meds to function made me the same as her opioid-addicted son, someone who did whatever it took to get his fix.  She hurt me and it cost a friendship, but it also made me see that too many of us are getting labeled.

Things need to change.  We need to be heard and we need to tell our stories.  We don't need to have people in Washington, DC leave us with suicide as the only option of living a pain free life. Too many of us are dying as it is.  Please leave our pain management doctors alone as they are our lifeline to the future. 

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Tammy Malone lives with complex late-stage Lyme disease and Bartonella, a bacterial infection of the blood vessels. Both are spread by ticks. Tammy was first bitten by a tick in 2008.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Australian Study Finds Cannabis Does Little for Pain

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

A controversial study recently published in The Lancet Public Health followed over 1,500 Australian adults with chronic non-cancer pain for four years – one of the longest studies of its kind. All used prescription opioids and about half tried using cannabis for pain, some occasionally and others daily or near daily.

Advocates of medical marijuana as a treatment for pain may be surprised by the findings.

In the Pain and Opioids IN Treatment (POINT) study, Gabrielle Campbell, PhD, and colleagues at the University of New South Wales found "no evidence that cannabis use improved patient outcomes.”

"At each assessment, participants who were using cannabis reported greater pain and anxiety, were coping less well with their pain, and reported that pain was interfering more in their life, compared to those not using cannabis," said Campbell, who was lead author of the study. "There was no clear evidence that cannabis led to reduced pain severity or pain interference or led participants to reduce their opioid use or dose."

These findings are not unique. Campbell was co-author of a recent review in the journal Pain that found that “evidence for effectiveness of cannabinoids in chronic non-cancer pain is limited.”  Cochrane reviews came to similar conclusions about cannabis for treating fibromyalgia and neuropathic pain.

In short, cannabis helps, but maybe not that much.

The POINT study would seem to contradict the 2017 National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report, which found “substantial evidence” that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain, but in only five good-to-fair quality studies. Overall, the NAS report found that “cannabinoids demonstrate a modest effect on pain.”

About a third of the cannabis users in the POINT study reported reduced opioid use, but the prescription data showed that there was actually no difference.

The study also found that most cannabis users believed they were benefiting from cannabis, but there was no objective improvement in their pain scores.

“It is really difficult to disentangle the reasons for this,” Campbell told Cosmos. “One hypothesis is that it may improve sleep and subjective well-being.”

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This is consistent with other findings that cannabis doesn’t reduce pain, but helps people feel better. The book “A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition” states that “patients often say that cannabis mostly disassociates them from the pain, like it’s placed in another room instead of eliminated.”

Similar results were obtained in an Oxford study, which found that “an oral tablet of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, tended to make the experience of pain more bearable, rather than actually reduce the intensity of the pain.”

Masking pain may seem like a good thing. But as Grant Brenner, MD, points out in Psychology Today, believing that there is a benefit when there isn't one is problematic. Making pain more bearable may improve mood and sleep, but it could also lead patients to underestimate the significance of a serious health issue. This problem applies to many forms of pain management and requires further research.

“The illusion that a drug is helping with a condition when it is not can get in the way of seeking effective treatment and obtaining real relief,” said Brenner. “Rather than helping with actual pain, difficulty from pain, and need for opioid medication, cannabis consumption may lead people to believe they are improving when in reality they are not.

The POINT study found what many other studies have been finding about cannabis and chronic pain: Some people experience some benefits some of the time. But the study also has limitations. Participants had chronic pain severe enough to merit opioid therapy, so they may not be representative of people with chronic conditions in general. They also only had access to illicit cannabis that was not part of structured pain management program.

Still, as an editorial in The Age points out: "The findings do not mean medical cannabis does not merit a place in the treatment of various other ailments."

Cannabis and cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals like Epidiolex are proving useful for managing seizures, reducing chemotherapy side effects, and treating multiple sclerosis. There may yet be other uses to be discovered. For instance, cannabis may be effective for more rare disorders. And cannabis may be a viable add-on therapy or alternative for people who cannot tolerate or do not do well with conventional therapies.

The POINT study shows that cannabis is not a panacea for pain. Instead, cannabis is a drug, and we have to treat it with the respect we give any drug if we're going to learn how to use it effectively.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

FDA Approves First Marijuana-Based Prescription Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of Epidiolex, the first drug derived directly from marijuana, to treat seizures caused by two rare and severe forms of childhood epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Epidiolex is the first FDA-approved medication that contains cannabidiol (CBD), one of the active ingredients in marijuana. It does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound in marijuana that makes people high.

“This is an important medical advance. But it’s also important to note that this is not an approval of marijuana or all of its components. This is the approval of one specific CBD medication for a specific use. And it was based on well-controlled clinical trials evaluating the use of this compound in the treatment of a specific condition,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

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FDA approval of Epidiolex is a major milestone for GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company focused on developing CBD-based medications. The company said Epidiolex would be available in the fall, but did not disclose the price. Some analysts have predicted it could cost as much as $25,000 a year.

Many oils and tinctures containing CBD are already sold online and in states were medical marijuana is legal, but the FDA has not approved any of them. The agency has only approved a handful of synthetic cannabinoids such as Marinol (dronabinol) to treat loss of appetite and nausea.

“We’ll continue to support rigorous scientific research on the potential medical uses of marijuana-derived products and work with product developers who are interested in bringing patients safe and effective, high quality products,” Gottlieb said.

“But, at the same time, we are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”

Some children in clinical trials experienced side effects from Epidiolex such as liver toxicity, anemia and drowsiness, but an FDA staff report said the risks were “mild to moderate” and could be managed with warning labels. The staff report also found there was low risk of the strawberry flavored Epidiolex being abused.

“Today’s approval of Epidiolex is a historic milestone, offering patients and their families the first and only FDA-approved CBD medicine to treat two severe, childhood-onset epilepsies,” Justin Gover, GW Pharmaceutical’s CEO, said in a statement.

“This approval is the culmination of GW’s many years of partnership with patients, their families, and physicians in the epilepsy community to develop a much needed, novel medicine. These patients deserve and will soon have access to a cannabinoid medicine that has been thoroughly studied in clinical trials, manufactured to assure quality and consistency, and available by prescription under a physician’s care.”

While Epidiolex is only approved for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, doctors will presumably be able to prescribe it “off label” for other conditions such as chronic pain.  

GW Pharmaceuticals also makes Sativex, an oral spray that contains both CBD and THC. Sativex has been approved in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries for the treatment of muscle spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis. In Israel, Sativex is also approved for the treatment of pain and chronic non-cancer pain.  

5 Myths About Cannabis and the Opioid Crisis


By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Cannabis has a glowing halo of health around it. Claims of medical efficacy abound, including a recent article in The Street that asks, “Can Legal Cannabis Help Slow the Opioid Drug Epidemic in the U.S.?”

Another article in The Charlotte Observer is more of a plea than a question:  "What’s it going to take for us to recognize the value of cannabis in combating the opioid epidemic?"

These articles perpetuate five key myths about cannabis. The opioid crisis requires a significant response, but enthusiasm needs to be tempered by fact.

“I think we need to be very circumspect in what we are expecting from cannabis with respect to the opioid epidemic,” Dr. Susan Weiss of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said at a recent forum at the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California, Irvine.

We also need to be accurate. Cannabis has significant medical potential, but if we lose sight of facts, we may fall into one or more risky myths. 

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Myth 1: Cannabis is Not Addictive

According to NIDA, 30 percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. In current parlance, a “use disorder” is a broad term that includes all forms of misuse, abuse and addiction. 

The World Health Organization estimates that about one of every eight cannabis users is dependent in some way. Since the U.S. has about twice the world average for cannabis use disorder, this puts the U.S. rate at an estimated 25%, close to the number from NIDA.  

“There should be no controversy about the existence of marijuana addiction,” Dr. David Smith, who has been treating drug addiction in San Francisco for 50 years, told The Pew Charitable Trusts. “We see it every day. The controversy should be why it appears to be affecting more people.”

Myth 2: There Has Never Been a Fatal Cannabis Overdose

In May, the Journal of Forensic Science reported on two fatal cases of chronic nausea and vomiting, apparently caused by persistent cannabis use.

Although cannabis has a very wide therapeutic window, it is not infinite. And cumulative effects become significant for regular users, including medical cannabis patients. There is extensive literature on non-fatal cannabis toxicity, along with increasing rates of unintentional cannabis intoxication among children.

In addition, Israeli pharmacists have been cautioning that “for older patients who suffer from cardiovascular diseases, use of the drug can lead to increased risks of blood pressure fluctuations, heart attacks, ongoing cardiac distress and even sudden cardiac death.”  

Myth 3: Cannabis Can Treat Chronic Pain

In the wake of the 2017 National Academies report on cannabis, a number of major reviews and meta-analyses have been performed. A recent review in the journal Pain concluded that “it appears unlikely that cannabinoids are highly effective medicines" for chronic non-cancer pain. 

Cochrane came to similar conclusions in two recent reviews, one on cannabis for fibromyalgia and the other on cannabis for chronic neuropathic pain in adults.

In other words, cannabis may not be quite the panacea that some people hope. Instead, it may be like most other medications, effective in some people for certain conditions but not for others.

Myth 4: Medical Cannabis Reduces Prescription Opioid Use

A recent study by the RAND Corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws have reduced prescribing of opioid pain medication.

"If anything, states that adopt medical marijuana laws... experience a relative increase in the legal distribution of prescription opioids,” said Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

And rather than reducing opioid abuse, statistical analyses of drug databases found that people who use medical marijuana may be at higher risk for misusing or abusing prescription drugs.

Many studies on medical cannabis look at people in state medical cannabis programs. But such programs act as biased filters that select people who are most likely to benefit from medical cannabis or believe they already have. These patient self-reports are often inaccurate and have to be interpreted with caution.

Myth 5: Cannabis Helps Recovering Drug Addicts

Pain Medicine News reported on a study that found many people undergoing addiction treatment self-medicate with cannabis to relieve their pain, anxiety, depression and poor sleeping habits.  The researchers cast doubt on the effectiveness of that strategy, saying “cannabis may have an odd but unproductive effect on symptoms in some people.” 

Similarly, a new study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that: "cannabis use was associated with negative long-term symptomatic and treatment outcomes” for anxiety and mood disorders.

There are plenty of anecdotal success stories about cannabis treating chronic pain, addiction and other conditions, but the plural of anecdote is not data. That hasn’t stopped 29 states and the District of Columbia from legalizing the medical use of cannabis.

“Public policy is light years ahead of the science right now,” Ziva Cooper, a professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University told The State Journal Register.  “There seems to be this nationwide experiment on the effects of cannabis that is happening in the absence of rigorous studies.”

We have to treat cannabis with the same respect we give to any medication. Cannabis can be used medically, but we should be aware of the risks involved. And it is vital that myths be dispelled so that people who benefit from medical cannabis can use it safely and effectively. 

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Medical Marijuana Reduces Opioid Use in Older Adults

By Pat Anson, Editor

Medical marijuana can significantly reduce pain levels in older adults and reduce their need for opioid pain medication, according to a small study of cannabis users. The findings add to growing -- and sometimes conflicting evidence -- that medical marijuana reduces demand for prescription opioids.

To gauge how effective medical marijuana is at managing chronic pain and reducing opioid use, researchers at Northwell Health, a healthcare network based in New York State, surveyed 138 patients who started using medical marijuana in the previous month. The patients have chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and chronic hip and knee pain.

The 20-question survey focused on how often they used marijuana, in what form they took it, how much it reduced pain and whether they were able to cut back their use of painkillers.

A month after they started using medical marijuana, most patients reported that their average pain score dropped from 9 (on a scale of 0-10) to a more moderate pain level of 5.6.

Nearly two-thirds said they were able to reduce or stop their use of painkillers, with 27% saying they were able to stop completely. Over 90% said they would recommend medical marijuana to others.

 DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

"My quality of life has increased considerably since starting medical marijuana," one patient said. "I was on opiates for 15 years."

"It (medical marijuana) is extremely effective and has allowed me to function in my work and life again. It has not completely taken away the pain, but allows me to manage it," another patient said.

About 45% of patients said they ingested marijuana using vaporized oil, 28% used pills and 17% used marijuana-laced oil. Most said they used marijuana daily, with 39% using it more than twice a day.

"What I'm seeing in my practice, and what I'm hearing from other providers who are participating in medical marijuana programs, is that their patients are using less opioids," said Diana Martins-Welch, MD, co-author of the study and a physician in the Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at Northwell Health. "I've even gotten some patients completely off opioids."

Research in Israel also found that cannabis can significantly reduce chronic pain in elderly patients. But the evidence is less certain that it reduces opioid use.   

A recent study of Medicare and Medicaid patients found that prescriptions for morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl dropped in states with medical marijuana laws, but daily doses for oxycodone increased. A second study found nearly a 6% decline in opioid prescribing to Medicaid patients in states with medical marijuana laws.  Both studies were conducted during a period when nationwide opioid prescribing was in decline.

A recent study by the RAND corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws experience reductions in the volume of legally prescribed opioids. RAND researchers believe some pain patients may be experimenting with marijuana, but their numbers are not large enough to have a significant impact on prescribing. 

Despite the uncertainty of the evidence, the Illinois Senate recently passed legislation that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program by allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to any patient who is prescribed opioid medication.  The idea is to get patients off opioids before they become addicted or dependent on the drugs.

"We know that medical cannabis is a safe alternative treatment for the same conditions for which opioids are prescribed," said Sen. Don Harmon, the bills’ sponsor. "This legislation aims to stop dependence before it begins by providing an immediate alternative."

Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Medical Marijuana Offers Little Benefit for Acute Pain

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would let doctors recommend cannabis for short-lived acute pain. According to the Denver Post, the bill would allow doctors to recommend marijuana for any condition “for which a physician could prescribe an opiate for pain.”

State law currently allows Colorado doctors to recommend marijuana for nine long term medical conditions, including severe chronic pain. But Dr. Larry Wolk, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, cautioned that there isn’t enough evidence to support marijuana’s use for acute pain.

“We’re not set up … for this acute pain situation,” Wolk said at a hearing. “This would last maybe three days to a week. But, when you receive a (medical marijuana) card, it’s good for a year.”

Cannabis is one of the most studied substances in the world, but many basic questions about its medical use remain unexplored. Research has found that cannabis doesn’t work well for acute pain.

In 2008, Dr. Birgit Kraft led a small study of cannabis for acute inflammatory pain. Kraft used a double-blind, crossover protocol on 18 healthy female volunteers, evoking pain in several ways and treating it orally with a cannabis extract. It did nothing to reduce acute pain and may have increased it in some subjects.

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"The surprising result of our study was the absence of any kind of analgesic activity of THC-standardized cannabis extract on experimentally induced pain using well-established human model procedures,” Kraft said in an interview with Science Daily. “Our results also seem to support the impression that high doses of cannabinoids may even cause increased sensitivity in certain pain conditions.”

A similar study with a more limited scope was performed in 2007 using smoked cannabis. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study with 15 healthy volunteers, researchers tested sensitivity to capsaicin-induced pain. They concluded that there was a "window of modest analgesia for smoked cannabis, with lower doses decreasing pain and higher doses increasing pain.”

In other words, the best cannabis could muster was a mild benefit if a person could manage to hit a sweet spot between too little and too much.

A clinical study in 2006 on cannabis for post-surgical pain did not go so well. Researchers in Berlin used Cannador (a cannabis plant extract) on patients after surgery. None of the patients was able to achieve sufficient pain relief at any dose of Cannador. Several experienced significant side effects, including sedation and nausea. Importantly, the study had to be halted because of a severe adverse event in one patient.

And a 2018 study on “the good, the bad, and the ugly” about medical cannabis came to this conclusion: “Cannabinoids appear to be most effective in controlling neuropathic pain, allodynia, medication-rebound headache, and chronic noncancer pain, but do not seem to offer any advantage over nonopioid analgesics for acute pain.”

There is thus little evidence to suggest that cannabis may be useful for acute, short-lived pain. Instead, the available research points to nontrivial risks, including the possibility of increased pain and adverse reactions.

Better Options Available

Moreover, there are a wide variety of options for treating acute pain, from ibuprofen and other NSAIDs to acetaminophen, topical analgesics, lidocaine and other local anesthetics, and ultrasound therapy. It is more than a bit puzzling that Colorado would be seeking to replace opioids with cannabis when so many well-established options are readily available for acute pain.

For instance, the Journal of the American Dental Association published an analysis of the benefits and risks of analgesic medications in the management of acute dental pain. Results showed that ibuprofen plus acetaminophen offered the best outcome, with acetaminophen with oxycodone and diclofenac, ketoprofen, and difunisal also giving good results. The article concludes that the risks of opioid analgesics, in particular for children and adolescents, can be minimized by medically appropriate use of NSAIDs and acetaminophen.

Furthermore, cannabis does have side effects and risks. Some people do not tolerate it well, and cannabis use disorder reportedly develops in 9% or more of people who use it. Even CBD oil, arguably the safest form of cannabis, has side effects that include fatigue, diarrhea, and possible effects on liver enzymes.

Untreated or undertreated pain has significant clinical consequences, from impeding appropriate diagnostic testing and evaluation to impacting follow-up care and recovery. There are already reliable and effective options for acute and short-term pain management, with fewer risks and side effects than cannabis, few issues with misuse or abuse, and no legal conflicts between federal and state law.

Cannabis has important medical benefits, from controlling chemotherapy-induced nausea and reducing seizures in childhood epilepsy to helping with some chronic pain conditions. But the available evidence does not support cannabis for the management of short-lived acute pain.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

FDA Staff Recommends Approval of Marijuana Drug

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be on the verge of approving its first prescription drug derived directly from marijuana.

In a report posted online, FDA staff said there was “substantial evidence” that Epidiolex, a liquid formula containing cannabidiol (CBD), was effective in reducing seizures in children with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) and Dravet syndrome (DS), two severe forms of childhood epilepsy.

 GW PHARMACEUTICALS IMAGE

GW PHARMACEUTICALS IMAGE

Epidiolex is made by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British drug maker that specializes in developing drugs from marijuana.

“The applicant has provided positive results from three randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies conducted in patients with LGS and DS,” FDA staff reported.

“The studies are adequate and well-controlled. The statistically significant and clinically meaningful results from these three studies provide substantial evidence of the effectiveness of CBD for the treatment of seizures associated with LGS and DS.”  

CBD is one of the active ingredients in marijuana. It does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound in marijuana that makes people high. Many oils and tinctures containing CBD are already sold online and in states were medical marijuana is legal, but the FDA has not approved any of them.  The agency has only approved a handful of synthetic cannabinoids such as Marinol (dronabinol) to treat loss of appetite and nausea.

Although some children in the clinical trials experienced side effects from Epidiolex such as liver toxicity, anemia and drowsiness, the FDA staff report said the risks were “mild to moderate” and could be managed with warning labels. The report also found there was low risk of the strawberry flavored Epidiolex being abused.

“Although the review is still ongoing, the risk-benefit profile established by the data in the application appears to support approval of cannabidiol for the treatment of seizures associated with LGS and DS,” the report concludes.

(4/18/18 Update: An FDA advisory committee unanimously recommended that the FDA accept the staff findings and approve Epidiolex) 

In a briefing paper for the committee, GW Pharmaceuticals said there were few effective treatment options for children with LGS and DS, who often have severe intellectual and developmental disabilities and a high risk of mortality.

A final decision by the FDA is expected this summer. There is no guarantee the agency will follow the advice of its staff or advisory committee. If Epidiolex is approved, it would only be for the treatment of childhood epilepsy. However, doctors would presumably be able to prescribe it “off label” for other conditions such as chronic pain.  

GW Pharmaceuticals also makes Sativex, an oral spray that contains both CBD and THC. Sativex has been approved in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries for the treatment of muscle spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis. In Israel, Sativex is also approved for the treatment of pain and chronic non-cancer pain.  

PNN’s coverage of medical marijuana is sponsored by Every Day Optimal CBD.

Dear AARP: Stop Picking on Pain Patients

(Editor’s Note: Last year PNN columnist Rochelle Odell wrote an article critical of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) for publishing a special report entitled “The Opioid Menace.” The report claimed that many older Americans had become “new opioid dealers” who were fueling the opioid crisis by “selling their prescription painkillers to drug pushers.”

AARP recently published a new bulletin, which focuses on how scammers are bilking Medicare for $60 billion annually. Once again, AARP claims that Medicare fraud "puts deadly pills on the street" and helps fuel the opioid crisis. In response, Rochelle wrote this open letter to AARP’s editors.)

Dear AARP Editors,

I received the AARP Bulletin and at first found your cover story on Medicare fraud interesting. Fraud is a major problem that will need patients, physicians and law enforcement to resolve. It causes healthcare costs to rise, which many of us on Social Security and fixed incomes can’t afford to pay.

As I got towards the end of the bulletin, my anger began to rise as I read "The Opioid-Medicare Connection." You claim that “shady doctors are writing bogus prescriptions for opioid painkillers” using stolen Medicare ID numbers and that “the pills are then sold on the street for huge profits.”

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“The practice is shockingly common, and the impact is severe. For Medicare, it means covering the cost of countless millions of high-priced pills that never should have been prescribed. At the same time, prescription opioids are responsible for an estimated 95 overdose deaths a day in the United States,” the article claims, without ever citing a source for that information. 

It brought me back to last summer when AARP published "The Opioid Menace." Why is AARP constantly attacking opioid pain medication? Why do you continually write misleading information about opioids? Could it be dollar motivated? 

Then I read about AARP's survey on medical marijuana, which found that a majority of older Americans “think marijuana is effective for pain relief and should be available to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.”  I have to disagree with the survey findings. There are many of us who have tried medical cannabis and received zero benefit. It did nothing for my pain. 

Then it dawned on me, of course insurance providers such as AARP would like more patients to use cannabis. As it becomes harder for us to get prescription opioids, many pain patients are turning to cannabis, a treatment that AARP and other insurers don't have to pay for. How much will that fatten your bottom line?

I find it hard to believe stolen Medicare ID numbers play that big of a role in the opioid crisis. Prescriptions for opioid medication are tracked more than ever, with doctors, pharmacists and insurers having instant access to databases to see just how many prescriptions a patient is getting.

I have been on Medicare since 1997 due to becoming disabled by Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). There has never been a time that I did not have to present a picture ID when picking up an opioid prescription. And if I was unable to pick them up myself, a friend or relative had to present my ID confirming it was indeed for me, along with my current address.

Please explain how the "shady doctors" you referred to in your article are able to pull off this "shockingly common" fraud and make “huge profits.” As in last year's Opioid Menace article, AARP uses minimal references to support these claims. It was interesting you referenced only one physician who did this, only one. 

Medicare just published a new rule starting in 2019, which impose new limits on high dose opioids and requires “high risk” patients to see a specific physician and use a specific pharmacy. Think of the money you can save now. More patients paying out of pocket for medical cannabis and prescription opioids being reduced or stopped. 

Whatever happened to AARP being there for us older Americans?

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Rochelle Odell lives in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.