Prescription drugs already on the market use synthetic THC to treat weight loss, nausea and vomiting in patients with AIDS or cancer. And researchers continue to study whether marijuana helps with PTSD, back pain and other problems.
New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Mexico allow medical marijuana for opioid addiction despite little evidence it works.
But marijuana may be helpful in reducing use of opioid painkillers. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, better known for its research on herbs and yoga, has set aside $3 million for studies to determine which of marijuana’s 400-plus chemicals help with pain.
THC was excluded however.
Its mood-altering effects and potential for addiction and abuse make it less useful for pain, said Dr. David Shurtleff, the agency’s deputy director. And THC has been studied more than the lesser-known compounds.
CURE FOR CANCER?
Despite online claims, there’s only weak evidence that marijuana’s ingredients might one day be used to treat cancer. Most studies have been in animals or in the lab. Results have been mixed.
In one study, nine patients with an aggressive form of brain cancer had THC injected into their tumors; any effect on their survival was unclear. Another study found worrying evidence that marijuana might interfere with some cancer drugs, making them less effective.
RESEARCHING AN OUTLAW MEDICINE
The U.S. government grows marijuana for research at a farm in Mississippi and generally bans grant-funded studies of real-world products.
But a mobile lab inside a white Dodge van allows University of Colorado Boulder researchers to study the potent strains of marijuana many patients consume without running afoul of the law.
Study participants use marijuana in their homes, coming to the van for blood draws and other tests before and after using, said Cinnamon Bidwell who has federal grants to study marijuana’s effects on lower back pain and anxiety.
With increased demand for research pot, the Drug Enforcement Administration created an application process for growers, but has not acted on more than two dozen applications.
Such challenges are common for scientists studying an outlaw medicine, said Dr. Igor Grant, who directs the oldest marijuana research center in the U.S. at the University of California, San Diego.
There, scientists are studying marijuana chemicals for children with autism and adults with a brain disorder that causes uncontrollable shaking. Established by state law in 2000, the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research once relied solely on California for funding. The center now has support from private foundations, a sign of growing public acceptance of the research.
Minnesota medical marijuana patients must regularly fill out surveys about their symptoms and side effects. That allows researchers to study how people with cancer react to marijuana.
In one study, a third of cancer patients made only one purchase and didn’t come back during a four-month period. They may have died, or decided marijuana was too expensive or didn’t work. Of the rest, most reported improvements in vomiting, pain, disturbed sleep, anxiety and depression with few side effects.
Marijuana can ease many symptoms “all at one time,” but more study is needed, said study co-author Dr. Dylan Zylla of the health care system HealthPartners. He has no financial ties to cannabis companies.
Zylla is studying whether cancer patients can decrease their prescription opioid use while using marijuana.
Marijuana “does seem to help patients,” he said, “but so much is unknown about the risks, side effects and drug interactions.”