Marijuana's Pain-Relieving Properties To Be Studied By UCLA Researchers

By Kelly Burch 09/06/18

“The public consumption of cannabis has already far outpaced our scientific understanding. We really desperately need to catch up.”

doctor examining marijuana plant

Thirty states and Washington, D.C. have medical marijuana programs, but there has been little scientific research into the pain-relieving properties of pot.

Now, however, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles are trying to change that, by conducting research into marijuana as a pain reliever. 

“We're not trying to do pro-cannabis research or anti-cannabis research,” Dr. Jeffrey Chen, director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, told NBC News. “We're just trying to do good science.”

The initiative’s first goal will be to conduct a high-quality clinical research trial into pain relief. It will look at which types of cannabis products provide the most pain relief and whether cannabis may be able to replace opioid pain relievers for some patients.

Edythe London, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the UCLA School of Medicine, designed the study to test different combinations of THC (the principal psychoactive component of marijuana) and cannabidiol, an anti-inflammatory component that does not give a high. She wants to measure which “produces the most good,” she said, in terms of reducing pain and opioid use.

Studies have shown that states with medical marijuana programs have fewer opioid overdose deaths. However, there haven’t been studies that show whether pain patients are switching from opioids to medical marijuana, or studies to see how effective medical marijuana is at treating pain in individuals.

Because of this, the proposed UCLA study is “much-needed research,” according to Yuyan Shi, a health policy analyst at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the health consequences of marijuana and opioid use. 

The study still needs to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and more funding is needed.

However, Chen said that more organizations and individuals are realizing the importance of studying cannabis. Because of this, the research already has funds from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, federal and state sources, and private donors, he said. 

“The public consumption of cannabis has already far outpaced our scientific understanding,” Chen said. “We really desperately need to catch up.”

Chen hopes that the pain relief study will be just the first step for the research initiative. 

“While our priority is to study the therapeutic potential and health risks of cannabis on the body, brain, and mind, our mission is the interdisciplinary study of the wide-ranging health, legal, economic, and social impacts of cannabis,” he wrote in a message on the organization’s website. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.