A $2.2-million federally funded study soon will help answer the question: Does medicinal marijuana really help? The grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse funds a four-year project that began this monthat the University of Michigan. Researchers will track the progress of 800 recipients of medicinal marijuana prescriptions.
Michigan, where more than 135,000 patients are now in a 4-year-old statewide registry of approved medical marijuana users, is one of 20 states in which medical marijuana is used to ease pain and symptoms from cancer, seizures, glaucoma and other conditions, according to the researchers. Michigan voters approved a measure allowing medical marijuana in 2008.
Past research on medical marijuana’s effect has mostly focused on lab studies where participants are given different levels of marijuana or a placebo, then report whether their pain is lessened.
But those studies tend to last hours or a few days, and they fall short of determining whether the marijuana has a long-term effects on their lives in more practical ways — at work, with family or in social settings, said the U-M study leader Mark Ilgen,whose past research includes substance use, abuse, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Results show that pain was reduced, he said.
Experts, however, disagree about the magnitude of the pain reduction and how it compares with other pain medications, he said.
Still, he added, any pain reduction for the sufferer is welcome.
Just as important as pain mitigation is whether that change helps the sufferer with everyday life. The longer term functioning of medical marijuana users is really unknown, he said.
“Maybe they’re functioning better because of a better (pain) control, or maybe they’re … withdrawing socially because of the marijuana use,” he said.
Part of the study will be based on participants’ reports of how they’re faring; other data will include results of drug screens for other substances or arrest records, for example, Ilgen said.
The goal is to determine who does better and who does worse with medical marijuana, and what factors make the difference, he said.
The study eventually may be used by policy makers still struggling to understand the impact of the medical marijuana laws.
Just as important, Ilgen noted, “I see this as a starting point for more research.”
Participants cannot sign up. They must be approached by research staff at their first doctor’s appointment that is part of the process to become a registered medical marijuana user in Michigan.
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