Cannabis Research Took off in 2018

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This piece is part of Cannabis Wire’s 2018-in-review package. Read about how the industry is going global here, what lawmakers and advocates see for 2019 here, and our top stories of 2018 here.

Cannabis research has taken off in 2018: Sales went live in Canada in October and research conducted there is not subject to as many barriers as in the US; increasing legalization tax dollars are being funneled toward research; and major pharma companies have crept further into cannabis R&D. Just this week, Canadian cannabis company Tilray expanded its partnership with global pharma company Novartis, and they will distribute medical cannabis products to dozens of countries across the globe.

Perhaps most significantly, in June, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first cannabis extract-based medicine, Epidiolex, which only increased interest in the space.

An example of how cannabis tax dollars are fueling research: The Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment awarded $2.7 million in funding for researchers to study through 2023 whether cannabis can reduce the use of opioids for spine pain, and whether CBD is an effective and safe treatment for kids with autism. That brings the total of cannabis research grant funding awarded to $11.35 million.

Areas of interest in research are emerging. This year, I noticed more studies having to do with prenatal exposure and pregnant mothers who consume cannabis; research around youth use and brain development; around different types of pain, and whether and how cannabis or specific cannabinoids treat chronic pain, specifically with the goal of reducing use and dependence on opioids; and around neurological disorders, especially those that cause seizures (among other areas of interest).

Here’s a list of 12 published studies and pieces of research that I found interesting or important in 2018.

1.) Research suggests that cannabis use can reduce opioid use. A study published in the journal Addiction found that: “Statewide medical cannabis legalization appears to have been associated with reductions in both prescriptions and dosages of Schedule III (but not Schedule II) opioids received by Medicaid enrollees in the US.”

One of the researchers is Dr. Igor Grant. As the director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, he called the placement of cannabis in Schedule 1 “not tenable” years ago. (His center received a shot in the arm in 2016 when it was selected to receive millions from California’s cannabis tax revenue.)


2.) Cannabinoids “may make experimental pain feel less unpleasant and more tolerable,” according to a paper published in JAMA Psychiatry.

“Patients reliably endorse the belief that cannabis is helpful in alleviating pain; however, its analgesic properties are poorly understood,” said Martin De Vita, lead author of the paper.


3.) Pregnant women who used cannabis spiked from 2.85% to nearly 5% between 2002 and 2016, according to a JAMA Pediatrics Research Letter.

“Unlike alcohol and cigarette use, prenatal cannabis use has not decreased, especially during the first trimester of pregnancy, which is a key phase of neural development for the fetus,” the letter’s authors said.


4.) Why do some teens who use cannabis later have cognitive issues?

Research out of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that cannabis, “increases inflammation in a specific type of brain cell in adolescent mice that carries a rare genetic mutation linked to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other major psychiatric disorders.”

This could mean that some human consumers are “genetically predisposed to experience an enhanced inflammatory response and brain damage,” according to Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Mikhail Pletnikov.


5.) One in 10 frequent cannabis consumers will experience withdrawal, research out of Columbia University suggests.

The most commonly experienced types of withdrawal are:  

• nervousness/anxiety (76%)

• hostility (72%)

• difficulty sleeping (68%)

• depressed mood (59%)


6.) On that note, a new drug has been found to reduce withdrawal symptoms in people with cannabis use disorder. The National Institute of Drug Abuse funded a study at Yale University, which will now be expanded, for a drug that essentially blocks the degradation of anandamide, an endocannabinoid produced by the brain. (Endocannabinoids in the human body act upon the same receptors as cannabinoids found in the plant, hence the name.)

“With an increase of marijuana legalization efforts, it is reasonable to expect an increase in demand for treatment, and right now we don’t have any medications to help individuals trying to quit,” said the study’s author, Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale.


7.) More anecdotal evidence of “successful cannabis treatment” for patients with autism spectrum disorders is piling up, but clinical studies are needed, according to a Brief Report published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Among the findings, behavioral outbursts improved in 61% of patients.


8.) Patients with ALS and other neuron diseases responded positively to a cannabis drug.

Patients suffering from spasticity associated with motor neuron diseases like ALS took a drug that is equal parts THC and CBD and experienced “less spasticity and pain at 6-week follow-up compared with those given placebo,” findings published in the Lancet Neurology journal show.


9.) Mice who had dementia-like symptoms were given synthetic THC and then performed as well as mice who didn’t have those symptoms, according to new research presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.


10.) Cannabis helps relieve symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease, even though it has “no effect on gut inflammation,” research published in the United European Gastroenterology Journal suggests.

“We have previously demonstrated that cannabis can produce measurable improvements in Crohn’s disease symptoms but, to our surprise, we saw no statistically significant improvements in endoscopic scores or in the inflammatory markers we measured in the cannabis oil group compared with the placebo group,” said Timna Naftali, specialist in gastroenterology.


11.) People who have used cannabis in the past 12 months have a far lower risk of diabetes than those who have never used cannabis, according to researchers at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science.

“The relationship between cannabis use and diabetes is puzzling. Although cannabis users versus non-users should theoretically have a higher likelihood of diabetes, epidemiological studies suggest otherwise,” wrote researchers who analyzed datasets from the Canadian National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.


12.) Is vaped cannabis more potent than smoked when infrequent users consume?

Research published in JAMA Network Open suggests so, finding that vaped cannabis produced “qualitatively stronger drug effects.”

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