We’ve all heard the miracle stories that have come from the use of medicinal cannabis. Whether its cancer patients using extracts from the plant to aid their treatment, epilepsy sufferers utilizing it as a remedy for their seizures or palliative care patients completely transforming their quality of life, so many people can thank this humble plant for a new quality of life.
However, due to a lack of quality research into medicinal cannabis, there is a real lack of peer-reviewed evidence that supports these claims.
Often this means healthcare professionals are reluctant to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients who could benefit greatly from the medicine, even in jurisdictions where cannabis is legal, as they don’t have concrete evidence to support their decisions when prescribing the medication.
This not only prevents health care practitioners from helping patients who are desperate to reap in the benefits of the medicine, it is also holding the industry back from growing further and discovering new methods of using the plant to treat various illnesses.
Further research into the effects of medicinal cannabis is essential to give the medicine credibility within the medical field
There are plenty of studies that show that medicinal cannabis has positive impacts on different illnesses.
The problem is that there are very low amounts of evidence proving how exactly medicinal cannabis impacts specific conditions, what amount is the right amount, how it interacts with other medications and so on.
This is where further research into medicinal cannabis is essential. Once these questions can be answered with concrete evidence, healthcare practitioners will be far more likely to prescribe medicinal cannabis to their patients as the current risks associated with the process will be gone.
As an example of the limited research currently available, the TGA’s (Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration) summary of evidence by condition regarding medicinal cannabis states that for conditions like MS, epilepsy, palliative care, nausea and vomiting, and chronic non-cancer pain all current evidence quality is generally rated as none/insufficient, low or very low. This clearly demonstrates the strong demand for further research into the effects of medicinal cannabis to help specific conditions.
The barriers restricting further research into the effects of medicinal cannabis
There are many challenges that are faced when deciding to conduct research into medicinal cannabis.
Researchers looking to conduct research on cannabis or cannabinoids have to go through a series of review processes that could involve the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), institutional review boards, offices or departments in state governments or state boards of medical examiners.
As cannabis is still listed as a schedule 1 drug, basic and clinical researchers seeking to investigate the value of cannabis or cannabinoids for medicinal purposes from the NIDA, must acquire the approval from a range of federal, state and local agencies, institutions or organisations. After reading the vast amount of regulatory barriers researchers face, it quickly becomes apparent why there is such a lack of research taken into medicinal cannabis.
Barriers to Cannabis Supply
It is rather difficult for researchers to gain access to the quantity, quality, and types of cannabis products needed to undertake relevant research into the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
Within the United States, cannabis used for research is only available through the NIDA Drug Supply Program. However, their main purpose is to “advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health,” this has resulted in only one-fifth of funding going towards research into the therapeutic properties of cannabinoids but this is only half of the issue.
As all of the cannabis that NIDA provides is sourced from the University of Missisippi, researches are heavily restricted due to a lack of variety. The facility at the University of Mississippi isn’t able to replicate every single cannabis plant found in the country, nor the potency of each one and so it becomes quite challenging to conduct thorough research.
One of the key factors to determining how cannabis types can treat different conditions is the mix of over 100 different cannabinoids found within a plants chemical profile. So, to expand our knowledge of what cannabis can treat -variety is very important.
NIDA is addressing this problem and have contracted with the University of Mississippi to produce cannabis strains with differing concentrations.
Just recently, as of August 26th, the DEA have announced that they will finally let others grow research-grade cannabis. The DEA stated that it is “moving forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for marijuana in the United States” .
This is massive news as researchers will now have access to a wider variety of cannabis types which will make the research carried out far more effective and specific. This comes 3 years after the DEA agreed to offer scientists a variety of high-quality research material however never actually fulfilled this promise. With yesterday’s announcement, there is now great hope for the future of research into cannabis.
Researchers need proper financial support to be able to inform health care or public health of their findings. This is something that medicinal cannabis research is lacking, for example in 2015 NIDA supported studies that accounted for 59.3 percent ($66,078,314) of all NIH (National Institutes of Health) spending on cannabinoid research, however, only 16.5 percent ($10,923,472) supported research into the therapeutic properties of cannabinoid.
The research into the therapeutic properties of cannabis needs to be made easily accessible and given the proper facilities for researchers to conduct high quality research.
This will go on to help society gain a better understanding of the plants health benefits and could then go on to treat millions of illnesses and potentially save peoples lives.
Health care professionals need to be further educated on medicinal cannabis to improve prescription rates for patients
The stigma that is still surrounding cannabis and its potential therapeutic benefits is currently outweighing people’s desire to understand the impacts of medicinal cannabis. Is this yet another barrier facing further research into medicinal cannabis?
Research, led by author Anastasia B. Evanoff sent surveys to medical school curriculum deans at 172 medical schools in North America and received 101 replies. Two-thirds reported that their graduates were not prepared to prescribe medicinal cannabis and a quarter said they weren’t even equipped to answer questions relating to it.
Why is this an issue?
A lack of research results in an insufficient amount of evidence which is essential for understanding the impacts of medicinal cannabis. This prevents universities from teaching students about the potential benefits of the medicine and how to best prescribe it to patients.
Graduating healthcare practitioners feel inadequately trained to prescribe the medicine and choosing not to prescribe it to patients. This cycle continues to feed the stigma surrounding cannabis as there are so many gaps in current research to sufficiently prove the positive health impacts of medicinal cannabis.
“Medical education needs to catch up to marijuana legislation” said Laura Jean Beirut, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University and a member of the National Advisory Council of Drug Abuse. “Physicians in training need to know the benefits and drawbacks associated with medical marijuna so they know when or if, and to whom, to prescribe the drug” (source)
The bottom line
It is time for society to end the stigma surrounding cannabis and begin to take the plants benefits more seriously. Rather than ignoring its existence, universities should be open to gaining a better understanding of medicinal cannabis so that graduating healthcare practitioners feel adequately trained on the subject.
As medicinal cannabis becomes more established around the world, we are at a critical stage to conduct further research into the health benefits that come from the medicine. Without it, healthcare practitioners lack the training to confidently prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients, which leads to patients having restricted access to its benefits. Once we have further knowledge on medicinal cannabis health benefits, the entire cannabis industry will have the ability to grow and potentially develop innovative solutions to even more illnesses using the humble cannabis plant.
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