Medical Cannabis Won’t Solve the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Medical cannabis legalization isn’t helping reduce opioid overdoses. Two major studies have closely examined over a decade’s worth of data, finding no support for the idea that legalizing medical cannabis reduces prescription opioid use, overdose or mortality.

In June, Stanford researchers led by Chelsea Shover, PhD, published a study in PNAS using the same methodology as a 2014 JAMA study that found a positive association between cannabis legalization and lower opioid mortality from 1999 to 2010. But Shover and colleagues included more recent data and states with legalized medical cannabis.

“Our expanded analysis does not support the interpretation that broader access to cannabis is associated with lower opioid overdose mortality,” they concluded.

The 2014 study was very cautious in its findings, but cannabis advocates and industry representatives used it to support legalization efforts.

“It’s become such a pervasive idea,” Shover told STAT News. “It would be amazing if it was this simple, but the evidence is telling us now that it’s not.”

bigstock-Joint-5008146.jpg

Early this month, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health published a new study in JAMA Network Open that looked at whether people use cannabis in place of prescription opioids.  Researchers looked at data from 627,000 people aged 12 years and older who took the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2004 to 2014.

The results showed that enactment of medical marijuana laws was not associated with a reduction in prescription opioid abuse, contradicting the hypothesis that people would substitute marijuana for prescription opioids.

“We tested this relationship and found no evidence that the passage of medical marijuana laws — even in states with dispensaries — was associated with a decrease in individual opioid use of prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes," said senior author Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia.

The Shover-PNAS study also made the important point that medical cannabis users comprise only about 2.5% of the U.S. population. The vast majority of cannabis use is recreational. The Washington State Liquor Control and Cannabis Board estimates that only about 20% of so-called medical users are really using cannabis for medical reasons.

In other words, there aren’t enough medical cannabis users to impact nationwide overdose trends. And in state-level analysis, there is no evidence of any substantial effect, positive or negative, from medical cannabis legalization.

There are concerns that cannabis could actually make the opioid crisis worse. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that “cannabis use appears to increase rather than decrease the risk of developing nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder.”

Scientific evidence does not support claims that marijuana helps people kick opioids.
— Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director

"My main concern is by basically misinforming potential patients about the supposedly beneficial effects of cannabis, they may forgo a treatment that is lifesaving," NIDA director Nora Volkow, MD, told USA Today. “Scientific evidence does not support claims that marijuana helps people kick opioids.”

The FDA is taking note, warning a large cannabis operator last week to stop making unsubstantiated claims that its products can treat chronic pain, cancer, opioid withdrawal and other medical conditions.

Medical cannabis has uses, of course, but taking it for conditions it is not proven to help may lead to harms. Perhaps a way can be found to incorporate cannabis in addiction treatment, but that is quite different from expecting medical cannabis legalization to be an exit ramp for the opioid crisis.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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 Warns Curaleaf About Marketing of CBD Products

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning a large cannabis company to stop making unsubstantiated claims that its products can treat chronic pain, cancer, opioid withdrawal and other medical conditions.

An FDA warning letter was sent to Curaleaf, a Massachusetts-based company that sells cannabidiol (CBD) products online and in stores, and operates dispensaries in a dozen states. CVS Health responded to the FDA letter by pulling some Curaleaf products off its store shelves.

“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims — such as claims that CBD products can treat serious diseases and conditions — can put patients and consumers at risk by leading them to put off important medical care. Additionally, there are many unanswered questions about the science, safety, effectiveness and quality of unapproved products containing CBD,” acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, said in a statement. “Consumers should beware of purchasing or using any such products.”

Curaleaf, which claims to be the largest cannabis operator in the United States, makes an extensive line of CBD lotions, creams, oils and skin patches.

It recently began marketing a line of CBD products for pets to treat pain, spasms, anxiety and inflammation in animals.

The FDA’s warning letter to Curaleaf cited a number of unapproved marketing claims made by the company online and in social media, including:

https---s3.amazonaws.com-leafly-s3-logos-gCB8yK6zT5qU90DIF3iL_Curaleaf_AllProducts_smaller%25201.jpg
  • “CBD was effective in killing human breast cancer cells.”

  • “CBD has been linked to the effective treatment of Alzheimer’s disease…”

  • “CBD is being adopted more and more as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical-grade treatments for depression and anxiety.”

  • “CBD can also be used in conjunction with opioid medications, and a number of studies have demonstrated that CBD can in fact reduce the severity of opioid-related withdrawal and lessen the buildup of tolerance.”

  • “CBD oil is becoming a popular, all-natural source of relief used to address the symptoms of many common conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety … ADHD.”

The FDA gave Curaleaf 15 working days to respond. Failure to correct the violations could result in legal action, including seizure of the company’s products.

“Curaleaf is committed to the highest standards of quality and compliance, and will work collaboratively with the FDA to resolve all issues addressed in the agency's letter,” the company said in a statement.

“Compliance is a top priority for Curaleaf and the Company is fully committed to complying with FDA requirements for all of the products that it markets. We can affirm that nothing in the letter raises any issues concerning the quality and consistency of any Curaleaf product or calls into question the high safety standards of the Company's cultivation and manufacturing processes.”

CBD Products Loosely Regulated

Unlike prescription drugs approved by the FDA, the manufacturing process for CBD products is not subject to FDA review, and there has been no FDA evaluation of their effectiveness, proper dosage, how they could interact with drugs, or whether they have side effects.

Despite the lack of regulatory oversight, there has been explosive growth for CBD companies and their products are starting to appear in mainstream stores. In March, CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens started selling CBD lotions, tinctures, edibles and lozenges — including some made by Curaleaf.

“The only Curaleaf products we are selling are its CBD lotion and CBD transdermal patches,” CVS said in a statement. “Following the FDA’s warning letter to Curaleaf, we will be removing these items from our CBD offering.”  

The FDA sent similar warning letters to three cannabis operators in April. Until now, the enforcement actions have been sporadic and only targeted small companies.

“We will continue to work to protect the health and safety of American consumers from products that are being marketed in violation of the law through actions like those the FDA is taking today. At the same time, we also recognize the potential opportunities and significant interest in drug and other consumer products containing CBD,” said FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy, MD.

“We understand this is an important national issue with public health impact and of interest to American hemp farmers and many other stakeholders. The agency has a well-established pathway for drug development and drug approvals, and we remain committed to evaluating the agency’s regulatory policies related to other types of CBD products.”

The FDA held a public hearing on the issue in May, and opened a docket for public comments to obtain scientific data about the safety, manufacturing, quality, marketing, labeling and sale of CBD products. Nearly 4,500 comments were received. The agency plans to report on its progress this fall.

This week Curaleaf announced it will acquire GR Companies, a large cannabis retailer, in a cash and stock deal valued at $875 million. Curaleaf said the purchase solidifies it’s position as “the world's largest cannabis company by revenue and the largest in the U.S. across key operating metrics.”

Cannabis Effective in Treating Fibromyalgia

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Cannabis significantly reduces pain and improves quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia, according to Israeli researchers who conducted one of the first studies to look at the effectiveness of cannabis in treating fibromyalgia.

Nearly 300 patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia completed the 6-month study at a Tel Aviv clinic. Participants suffered from fibromyalgia symptoms for a median length of seven years and nine out of ten reported constant daily pain. Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread body pain, fatigue, poor sleep, anxiety and depression. Standard treatments for fibromyalgia often prove to be ineffective.

"It is commonly accepted that chronic pain can be treated with cannabis, but there is scarce evidence to support the role of medical cannabis in the treatment of fibromyalgia specifically," says Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider, head research scientist at Tikun Olam, a cannabis producer that sponsored the study.

Patents began with a low dose of cannabis every 3-4 hours that was gradually increased until it had a therapeutic effect.

Participants were treated with two Tikun Olam strains of cannabis; the high-THC “Alaska” strain and the high-CBD “Avidekel” strain, which has virtually no THC.  Both strains are available as a tincture, topical oil or for use in a vaporizer.

bigstock-The-words-medical-marijuana-su-17121803.jpg

Over 80 percent of the patients reported at least moderate improvement in their pain. At the start of the study, the median pain level for patients on a 1 to 10 scale was 9, but after six months the median pain level was reduced to 5.

In addition to lower pain intensity, nearly 93 percent of patients said they slept better and about 80 percent said there was improvement in their depression. Nearly two-thirds said their quality of life was good or very good. Appetite and sexual activity also improved.

The most common side effects were relatively minor, including dizziness, dry mouth and gastrointestinal symptoms.

“Our data indicates that medical cannabis could be a promising therapeutic option for the treatment of fibromyalgia, especially for those who failed on standard pharmacological therapies. We show that medical cannabis is effective and safe when titrated slowly and gradually,” researchers reported in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

“Considering the low rates of addiction and serious adverse effects (especially compared to opioids), cannabis therapy should be considered to ease the symptom burden among those fibromyalgia patients who are not responding to standard care.”

During the study, about one out of five patients either stopped or reduced their use of opioid pain medication or benzodiazepines while taking cannabis.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel since the early 1990s. A recent survey found about 27 percent of Israeli adults have used cannabis in the past year, one of the highest rates in the world.

Is CBD Psychoactive?

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The CBD boom is making Dutch Tulip Mania seem dull. CBD water is becoming a thing, and Ben & Jerry’s may soon introduce a CBD-infused ice cream. Basically, CBD is in everything.

The boom is built on the assumption that CBD, the cannabis cannabinoid known as cannabidiol, is not psychoactive. The FDA isn’t so sure and the DEA demurs, putting the CBD-based seizure drug Epidiolex into Schedule V last year.

So is CBD psychoactive? The answer hinges on the definition of the term psychoactive.

According to the World Health Organization: "Psychoactive substances are substances that, when taken in or administered into one's system, affect mental processes, e.g. cognition or affect.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains psychoactive drugs this way: “Drugs in this category act on the central nervous system and alter its normal, everyday activity, causing changes in mood, awareness, and behavior.”

The term “psychotropic” is used with a similar meaning. MedicineNet states that a psychotropic drug is “any drug capable of affecting the mind, emotions, and behavior.”

But does CBD affect mental states, alter everyday activity, or change mood, awareness, or behavior?

marijuana oil.jpg

The FDA last year approved Epidiolex -- the first CBD-based medication -- for the treatment of two rare and severe forms of childhood epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. CBD potentially has many other uses, including neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, and neuropsychiatric illness such as autism, ADHD, and PTSD.  It could also be beneficial for anorexia, anxiety, and mood disorders.

Purveyors of commercial CBD products go further, claiming that CBD may help with insomnia, social anxiety, and panic attacks. Although most product labels avoid specific claims of treatment efficacy to avoid FDA scrutiny, clear statements of possible benefits are easy to find online.

The FDA recently sent a warning letter to a New Jersey company for claiming that CBD can treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder.

In order for CBD to do even half of this, it would have to have an effect on mental states, mood and awareness. In other words, CBD could not do what its proponents claim without being psychoactive, at least in the narrow, technical sense of the term.

Dose Matters

But details matter here. First, psychoactive does not mean intoxicating, hallucinogenic or dissociative. And many prescription drugs have benefits precisely because they are psychoactive. Even caffeine is arguably psychoactive, though only very weakly.

Second, dose matters. The pharmaceutical Epidiolex is administered in doses that have 10 to 100 times more CBD than a typical over-the-counter or commercial CBD product. So CBD may be psychoactive in therapeutic doses, but not in “commercial” doses. Of course, this assumes the product actually contains CBD, which in practice is not necessarily the case.

Third, route of administration matters. CBD is only weakly bioavailable and unstable in light or temperature extremes. A clear bottle of CBD water or CBD bath oil could easily lose much of the CBD it may contain, and the remaining CBD may not even be absorbed. And if the CBD is applied to non-vascularized tissue, as is the case with CBD mascara, then it cannot be psychoactive because of a lack of blood vessels for transport to the brain.

Thus, whether or not CBD is psychoactive depends on the amount and method that CBD is introduced to the human body. Since most of the claims from proponents remain unverified and in many cases untested even in animals, it could be premature to state that CBD is psychoactive in a specific way.

On the other hand, the existing work on CBD argues for calling CBD psychoactive. Recent findings by Yasmin Hurd showed that CBD, specifically Epidiolex, reduces cravings in people addicted to heroin. Ongoing research is demonstrating possible benefits of CBD for seizure disorders in humans and even in dogs.

Project CBD noted in 2016 that “as our scientific understanding and therapeutic experience deepens, the description of CBD as non-psychoactive may fall by the wayside.”

For now, it would be reasonable to say that CBD is probably “weakly psychoactive” at commercial doses but more “strongly psychoactive” at therapeutic doses. As more studies are completed on what CBD actually does, the pharmacological description of CBD can be updated accordingly.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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.

Using Cannabis and Opioids Together May Not Be Such a Great Idea

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The opioid-sparing effect of cannabis is routinely touted as a reason for marijuana legalization. The hope is that cannabis combined with opioid medication will produce equal analgesia at lower opioid doses, thus reducing the risks associated with opioid therapy.

But evidence in favor of the opioid-sparing effect is largely pre-clinical and often involves animals or healthy volunteers, not the real world conditions that pain patients live with.

A recent study on rhesus monkeys, for example, at the University of Texas found that combining cannabinoids with morphine did not significantly increase the impulsivity or memory impairment of the monkeys.

A 2018 study by Ziva Cooper and colleagues on healthy cannabis smokers concluded that cannabis enhances the analgesic effect of oxycodone, suggesting there is a synergy between the two.

And a 2017 systematic review of over two dozen studies in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology reported “robust evidence of the opioid-sparing effect of cannabinoids.”

But evidence against the opioid-sparing effect of cannabis is mounting, based on clinical findings in real-world chronic pain patients.

Andrew Rogers of the University of Houston reported at the 2019 American Pain Society Scientific Meeting that chronic pain patients who used both prescription opioids and recreational marijuana showed higher levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse problems than those who used opioids alone. There was no difference between the two groups in pain levels.

bigstock-Medical-marijuana-and-pipe-46731607.jpg

"The things psychologists would be most worried about were worse, but the thing patients were using the cannabis to hopefully help with — namely pain — was no different,” Rogers told MedPageToday. "Co-use of substances generally leads to worse outcomes. As you pour on more substances to regulate anxiety and depression, symptoms can go up."

A large Australian study in The Lancet Public Health found that cannabis use was common in patients with chronic non-cancer pain who were prescribed opioids, but “there was no evidence that cannabis use reduced pain severity or interference or exerted an opioid-sparing effect.”

This research, known as the Australia POINT study, followed over 1,500 chronic pain patients for almost four years. Although its methodology has limitations, it is one of the largest long-term studies of opioids and cannabis under real-world conditions.

“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 lead author Gabrielle Campbell, PhD, of the University of New South Wales.

In other words, the opioid-sparing effect of cannabis seems not to work well in the real world, despite its apparent success under laboratory conditions. There are several possible factors at work.

First, laboratory conditions are artificial. Studies often use lab animals or healthy human volunteers. But people with chronic health conditions may be different. Or perhaps people who are experienced with cannabis and willing to spend a day in a laboratory being subjected to painful stimuli are different.

Second, laboratory studies are often short term, but chronic pain is long term. The cumulative risks of opioids and cannabis, as well as the complex interactions between them, may take time to unfold and discover. It is possible that an initial opioid-sparing benefit washes away quickly and is replaced by nontrivial risks.

Third, real-world studies emphasize patient outcomes, a factor that laboratory work cannot assess. Because outcomes are so important, studies that focus on them must be given greater weight. 

More research will be needed to sort out the effects of combining cannabis and opioids in chronic pain management. But at present, clinical studies point to more risks and harms than benefits. Perhaps a subset of patients or a particular combination of a specific opioid and cannabis preparation will change this. Or perhaps combining cannabis and opioids is not such a great idea. 

Roger Chriss.jpg

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.

CVS Begins Selling Cannabis Products

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

You may not be able to get your opioid prescription filled at a CVS pharmacy, but you can stock up on medical marijuana. The nation’s largest drug store chain has begun selling cannabis-based products in eight states, despite lingering concerns about their effectiveness and legal status.

The move was announced by cannabis retailer Curaleaf Holdings, which carries a line of cannabis lotions, tinctures, edibles and lozenges that CVS started carrying in its stores last week. The CBD products are being sold over-the-counter without a prescription.

(Update: Walgreens has also announced plans to sell CBD products in 1,500 of its stores.)

CBD stands for cannabidiol, a chemical compound in marijuana that does not produce euphoria but is believed to reduce symptoms of chronic pain and other health conditions.  

“We have partnered with CBD product manufacturers that are complying with applicable laws and that meet CVS’s high standards for quality,” a CVS spokesman said in an email to MarketWatch.  

CVS said that it was selling CBD products in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee. Curaleaf executives said CVS would eventually carry its products in 800 stores in ten states.

“We’re going to walk slowly, but this is something we think our customers will be looking for,” CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo told CNBC.

flower_pods_ceramic-e1534885071988.jpg

‘Treated Like Criminal’ at CVS

The move is somewhat puzzling for CVS, which was one of the first pharmacy chains to crackdown on opioid prescriptions due to concerns about addiction and overdose. In 2017, CVS began restricting initial opioid prescriptions to 7 days’ supply and aligned its polices with the CDC opioid guideline.

Pain sufferers now complain they’re treated like drug addicts by CVS pharmacists.

“I submit to monthly drug tests and do everything I am supposed to do and I am treated like a criminal at the doctor and CVS pharmacy. My two pills a day barely touches the pain, but I need to work,” one patient recently told us.

“Some pharmacies, such as CVS, have taken it upon themselves to deny my prescriptions that I have been having filled there for 15 years. They first took it upon themselves to adjust my dosage. I didn’t realize that pharmacist were allowed to change a prescription,” said another patient.

“Why does CVS, a drug store that sells NSAIDs without restriction, have control of how I treat my patient?” asked one practitioner.

Although most Americans now support the use of medical marijuana and it is legal in dozens of states, the safety, effectiveness and legality of CBD is still very much up in the air.  Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the DEA, alongside heroin and LSD.

“Societies have jumped far, far ahead of science,” Dr. Margaret Haney, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center, told NBC News. “So it’s showing up in lotions and pretty much any form of product one can use. There’s a lot of different ways one could use CBD, but the ways we have studied CBD is much more limited.”

According to MarketWatch, Curaleaf only list its shares on the Canadian Securities Exchange because major exchanges in the U.S. and Canada will not list shares of marijuana companies due to their hazy legal status.

Study: THC More Effective Than CBD in Treating Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – is more effective than cannabidiol (CBD) in treating chronic pain and other medical conditions, according to a new study that challenges the widespread belief that THC is harmful and has limited value in medical cannabis products.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico used the Releaf App, a mobile software program, to analyze self-reported data from over 3,300 people who logged their responses in nearly 20,000 user sessions to a variety of cannabis products, including natural dried flower, edibles, tinctures and ointments.

marijuana man.jpg

Dried flower was the most commonly used product and was generally associated with greater pain relief than other cannabis products, regardless of the amount of THC.

"Despite the conventional wisdom, both in the popular press and much of the scientific community that only CBD has medical benefits while THC merely makes one high, our results suggest that THC may be more important than CBD in generating therapeutic benefits,” said Jacob Miguel Vigil, PhD, a professor in UNM’s Department of Psychology.

“In our study, CBD appears to have little effect at all, while THC generates measurable improvements in symptom relief. These findings justify the immediate de-scheduling of all types of cannabis, in addition to hemp, so that cannabis with THC can be more widely accessible for pharmaceutical use by the general public.”

Hemp is a strain of marijuana that was legalized by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill. It has very low levels of THC, but is being grown commercially as a source for CBD.

UNM researchers found that indica strains of cannabis were more effective than sativa strains in treating pain and insomnia. Both strains have substantially higher levels of THC than hemp, but are illegal Schedule I controlled substances under federal law.

“Only THC potency levels showed independent associations with symptom relief and experiences of both positive and negative side effects, with higher levels (of THC) resulting in larger effects,” Vigil said.

Researchers say the relative weakness of CBD in treating symptoms may be due to inaccurate labeling of CBD content in cannabis products, which is a widespread industry problem. It’s also possible that THC simply heightens the experience or awareness of symptom relief.

Vigil published his findings in the journal Scientific Reports. Three of his co-authors developed the Releaf App, which has collected information from cannabis users since 2016. The app is an important data source for researchers, who are currently limited in conducting clinical studies of cannabis because of federal regulations.

Two previous studies by Vigil using data from the Releaf App found that cannabis provides significant relief from a wide range of symptoms associated with chronic pain, including insomnia, seizures, depression, anxiety and fatigue.