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.

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"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. 

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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.

Feds Warn CBD Marketers About False Medical Claims

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission are tapping the brakes on the fast growing market for cannabidiol (CBD), warning companies not to make false claims that CBD products can be used to treat fibromyalgia, migraine, arthritis and other chronic illnesses.

The agencies sent warning letters to three companies — Nutra Pure, PotNetwork Holdings, and Advanced Spine and Pain — for making false and unsubstantiated health claims about a variety of CBD oils, extracts and edibles.

The FDA and FTC sent the warning letters on March 28 and gave the companies 15 days to respond.

Nutra Pure’s website, according to regulators, claimed that “CBD has demonstrated the ability to block spinal, peripheral and gastrointestinal mechanisms responsible for the pain associated with migraines, fibromyalgia, IBS and other related disorders.”

Claims were also made that CBD is “an effective and safe treatment alternative” for inflammatory conditions such as lupus, Celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Nutra Pure, which makes a line of hemp oil, has a small disclaimer on its website stating that “these products are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease.”

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PotNetwork has a similar disclaimer on its website, where it sells everything from CBD infused gummy bears and energy drinks to moisturizers and pet care products. According to the FDA, the company falsely claimed that CBD “blocked the progression of arthritis” and “has also shown the ability to kill cancer cells directly.”  

In addition to marketing CBD products, Advanced Spine and Pain also offers stem cell therapy, steroid injections, trigger point injections and ketamine infusions at its “Relievus” clinics in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

‘Open Questions’ About CBD Safety

The federal crackdown on CBD marketing comes at a time when CBD products are starting to appear in mainstream stores. CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens started selling cannabis-based lotions, tinctures, edibles and lozenges in stores last month. The CBD products are being sold over-the-counter and without a prescription.  

The FDA and FTC announced no actions against CVS, Walgreens or other retailers selling CBD products, but they sent a clear message that the marketing of CBD will be closely watched.

“We treat products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds as we do any other FDA-regulated products. Among other things, the FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that’s marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement. “Additionally, it is unlawful to introduce food containing added CBD, or the psychoactive compound THC, into interstate commerce, or to market CBD or THC products as dietary supplements.”

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp – a less potent strain of marijuana – from the Controlled Substances Act. That made hemp products legal to sell, but left the FDA in charge of regulating dietary supplements containing CBD. The agency is still trying to figure out how to regulate a product for which there is growing consumer demand, but little scientific evidence to support its use.

“While the availability of CBD products in particular has increased dramatically in recent years, open questions remain regarding the safety considerations raised by their widespread use,” Gottlieb said. “There are also unresolved questions regarding the cumulative exposure to CBD if people access it across a broad range of consumer products, as well as questions regarding the intended functionality of CBD in such products.”

Gottlieb has announced plans to hold a public hearing on May 31 to review the safety and effectiveness of CBD products. The FDA is also forming an internal working group within the agency to explore what regulatory changes would be needed for CBD products to be marketed legally.  

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.

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‘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.

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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.

CBD Is Now Regulated and That May Be a Good Thing

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The legal status of cannabidiol (CBD) is changing. Once classified exclusively as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, CBD is now legal under federal law. And this means regulation.

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from Schedule I. Hemp is a strain of marijuana with very low levels of THC, but high amounts of CBD.  This has opened the door to a legal market for CBD products, including food and supplements. But there’s a catch. The FDA has strict regulations about CBD being used in dietary supplements or promoted as medical treatments.

“It’s unlawful under the FD&C Act (Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) to introduce food containing added CBD or THC into interstate commerce, or to market CBD or THC products as, or in, dietary supplements, regardless of whether the substances are hemp-derived,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a December 2018 statement.

“Among other things, the FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim, to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce. This is the same standard to which we hold any product marketed as a drug for human or animal use.”

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 The FDA has a FAQ page about cannabis that answers some basic questions:

"Can products that contain THC or cannabidiol (CBD) be sold as dietary supplements? A. No."

"Is it legal, in interstate commerce, to sell a food to which THC or CBD has been added? A. No."

The FDA has reason to be concerned. Product quality for CBD products is iffy at best. An investigation by the NBC affiliate in Miami (see “Patients Are Being Duped”) found that 20 of 35 CBD products tested had less than half the amount of CBD advertised on the label. Some samples had no CBD at all.

Other recent analyses have found THC, pesticides, synthetic cannabinoids and toxic solvents in CBD products.

Moreover, a lack of regulatory oversight has led to an abundance of false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims. A recent review of CBD in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that “CBD has been touted for many ailments for which it has not been studied, and in those diseases with evaluable human data, it generally has weak or very weak evidence.”

There is a lot of research on CBD going back years. The FDA’s approval of the CBD-based drug Epidiolex for rare childhood seizure disorders and a 2018 review that found potential for treating multiple sclerosis symptoms are important indicators of CBD’s medical value. At the same time, researchers have found no benefit in treating spinal cord injury, Crohn’s disease and osteoarthritis.

Yet CBD is now being widely promoted as a wellness product, and added to everything from coffee and pastries to bath oils and mascara. So it is not surprising that the FDA is concerned that people may be duped or put at risk.

The FDA is not alone in this. The New York City Department of Health has banned CBD products from being sold in bars and restaurants. Maine, New York, and Ohio are also banning CBD edibles.

For medically complicated people with chronic illness, regulation could be beneficial. At present these patients face significant risks with CBD products. Tainted CBD may cause unexpected allergic reactions or drug interactions. And contaminated CBD could trigger a positive result on a urine drug test, a common part of pain management amid the opioid crisis. Regulatory oversight could help reduce these risks. 

The legal and regulatory landscape surrounding CBD is shifting quickly. The FDA and state government agencies are watching closely and starting to intervene. This may flush out bad actors in the CBD marketplace and improve product quality and reliability. A stable marketplace with reliable products may be a net gain for the people who stand to benefit the most from CBD.

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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.

‘Cannabis Tourism’ Linked to More Fatal Accidents

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Has marijuana legalization made driving more dangerous?  There have been conflicting claims over the years that states where cannabis is legal have more car crashes. And one recent study found that over half of medical cannabis users drive while impaired.

A new study adds a little more clarity to the issue.

Researchers at Monash University in Australia looked at traffic fatalities in three U.S. states where recreational cannabis was legalized (Colorado, Washington and Oregon), and in eight neighboring states and British Columbia.

They found there was an average of one additional traffic fatality for every million residents. That may not sound like much, but when you consider there were 27 million people in the affected areas, it adds up to 170 additional deaths in the first six months after legalization.

Many of the additional deaths were attributed to “cannabis tourism” in which people in neighboring states and provinces purchased recreational cannabis in legalized states and then drove home while under the influence.

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"The results suggest that legalizing the sale of cannabis for recreational use can lead to a temporary increase in traffic fatalities in legalizing states. This spills over into neighboring jurisdictions through cross-border sales, trafficking, or cannabis tourists driving back to their state of residence while impaired,” says lead author Tyler Lane, PhD, a postdoctoral research Fellow at Monash.

"Our findings suggest that policymakers should consult with neighboring jurisdictions when liberalizing cannabis policy to mitigate any deleterious effects."

Because the increase in fatalities was temporary, Lane believes it could be due to an initial “celebratory response to legalization” that contributes to cannabis tourism. His study was published in the journal Addiction.

Fatalities Drop in Medical Cannabis States

While fatalities rose in states with recreational cannabis, Lane notes that previous research has found a decrease in traffic fatalities in states that legalized medical marijuana. That may be because patients may be substituting cannabis for alcohol and other controlled substances used to relieve symptoms.

“There seem to be differences between medicinal and recreational user consumption patterns. Medicinal users have a tendency to substitute, but recreational users are more likely to treat alcohol and cannabis as complements and use them together,” Lane said in an email to PNN. 

“Because marijuana on its own is less impairing than alcohol, and combined used is much more impairing than either in isolation, it suggests that when people substitute alcohol for cannabis (in the medicinal use context), they will still be impaired, but to a much lower degree than if they were still using alcohol.” 

This “harm reduction role” of medical cannabis was noted in a 2016 Canadian study that found patients reduced their use of alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drugs when cannabis was taken for medical reasons. 

Medical marijuana is currently legal in 33 states and Washington DC, and ten states allow its recreational use.

What Should You ‘Tell Your Children’ About Marijuana?

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Depending on your point of view, the new book “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence” is either a welcome cautionary tale about cannabis or a reincarnation of the infamous movie Reefer Madness.

Author Alex Berenson, a novelist and former reporter for The New York Times, is clearly no fan of cannabis legalization and the growing hype over its medical use.  

“Marijuana is not medicine. Marijuana and THC-extract products — whether eaten or smoked — are intoxicants and mild pain relievers, like alcohol,” he writes. “Marijuana in the United States has become increasingly dangerous to mental health in the last fifteen years, as millions more people consume higher-potency cannabis more frequently.”

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Berenson argues that cannabis causes paranoia and psychosis, with more use leading to greater mental health issues and even violence.

He uses a combination of history and statistics as evidence, often with lurid reporting about cannabis and violent crime in the U.S. and Britain from over a century ago. Berenson describes incidents of psychotic breaks, murderous episodes, and heinous acts of violence that read a bit too much like true crime stories.

“Marijuana causes paranoia and psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence,” he writes, without offering any evidence linking the two.

Berenson then gives a brief history on the promotion of cannabis in the modern era by groups such as NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance and the magazine High Times. He emphasizes that the cannabis of the 1960s and ‘70s was “near beer” compared to the cannabis of today.

Berenson builds his case on the work of Swedish physician Sven Andréasson, who in the 1980s used data from the Swedish military draft to investigate the connection between cannabis and schizophrenia. Andréasson found that the use of cannabis was strongly correlated with schizophrenia and that the risk was dose-related.

To bolster his argument, Berenson draws on the work of Phil Silva in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study; Robin Murray at the Institute of Psychiatry in London; and the 2017 National Academies report on cannabis.

The cannabis-schizophrenia connection has been overlooked, in part because of limited data. In Washington state, for example, where recreational cannabis was legalized in 2014, the state health department doesn’t even keep track of schizophrenia cases.

Berenson says legalizing cannabis for medical use is a cagey strategy to protect recreational users and gain public support for full legalization, because it “encourages voters to think of marijuana as something other than an intoxicant.”

“Medical marijuana is a way of protecting a subset of society from arrest,” he wrote, adding that “marijuana simply wasn’t a strong enough painkiller to be effective for most people who truly needed opiates.”

He even suggests cannabis legalization may be exacerbating the opioid crisis.

“What’s gone unnoticed in the discussion over state-by-state changes is the striking correlation between the opiate epidemic and cannabis use at the national level,” he said. “The direct economic benefits of legalization also appear to be vastly overrated.”

Berenson concludes with an ironic argument for more research: “The government should drop its barriers to researching cannabis for medical purposes. The reason is not that marijuana is likely to prove a miracle cure for cancer — or anything else. It’s precisely the opposite. Let’s put unfounded claims to rest, permanently.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of Berenson’s conclusions. He points to a lack of data on trends in serious mental illness as hiding the impact of cannabis on schizophrenia rates. But the lack of data means we don’t really know what is happening. Trends are further obscured by changes in diagnostic criteria, reporting requirements and treatment availability. All of this needs to be carefully teased out in regard to cannabis as a factor in schizophrenia.

Similarly, Berenson recognizes that no research proves cannabis causes psychosis and violence. He points out that such research is not ethically acceptable. But there are other ways to establish causation, including prospective longitudinal studies and natural social experiments such as Canadian legalization. In other words, Berenson may be able to claim he is right some day, but not yet.

Lastly, Berenson ignores the issue of scale. Even if the psychotic breaks and criminal acts he describes are attributable to cannabis, they are still very rare compared to the scale of cannabis use. He needs to establish a base rate and then show that increasing levels of cannabis use are associated with rising rates of psychosis and violent crime. That work remains to be done.

“Tell Your Children” is useful but could have been better. Berenson overreaches in his conclusions and omits important considerations. But he raises relevant questions about the potential mental health risks and social implications of cannabis. “Tell Your Children” may not be essential reading, but for people who are interested in the possible risks of cannabis, it is certainly worth reading.

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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.