Medical cannabis is becoming more widespread. However, there are few evidence-based resources looking at the effects of all the different available cannabis products. A new study is the first to evaluate the relationship between the type of cannabis product used and real-time symptom relief in patients.
The Rise in Popularity of Medical Cannabis
With new research continuing to emerge, cannabis is quickly gaining popularity as an alternative therapy. Anecdotal and research evidence highlights the ability of cannabis to alleviate a number of symptoms including pain. This makes cannabis a promising substitute for prescription medications like opioids which come with a host of unwanted side effects, drug interactions, and the risk of overdose.
As a result, more and more states in the U.S. are passing laws to allow the medical use of cannabis. This has led to a surge in medical cannabis products. New strains, edibles, oils, tinctures, and topicals are constantly hitting the market.
Barriers to Cannabis Research
However, there’s little in the way of evidence-based guidance when it comes to how the characteristics of different cannabis products can affect patient symptoms. Unfortunately, the federal government in the U.S. doesn’t allow researchers to administer cannabis for research purposes.
The few studies that do exist are made up of small clinical trials using synthetic cannabinoids or low potency cannabis flower obtained from the government. The problem is these types of cannabis products are not representative of what most people are using.
Conflicting Information Can Confuse Users
On top of the lack of solid cannabis research, federally funded scientific research has a bad track record of giving conflicting messages about the true benefits and risks of using cannabis.
One example is cannabis and schizophrenia. Cannabis has often been described by researchers as causing schizophrenia. But other studies show that cannabis can actually be used as an alternative to antipsychotics for treating schizophrenia.
There are also conflicting messages about the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the two primary cannabinoid compounds in cannabis. The media and many researchers tend to characterize THC as merely psychoactive while attributing the majority of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis to CBD. However, there are few large-scale studies that have looked at the relative effects of THC and CBD consumption under realistic conditions.
Several researchers set out to change this.
Crowd-Sourced Data on Medical Cannabis
A new study published in Scientific Reports looks at the association between the characteristics of cannabis products and reported symptom relief in patients.
Researchers from the University of New Mexico wanted to help inform the development of guidelines for the safe and effective use of cannabis. To do this, study co-authors Franco Brockelman, Keenan Keeling and Branden Hall created the ReleafApp.
The ReleafApp is a cannabis treatment management tool designed to track cannabis sessions and cannabis use experiences in real-time. With the ReleafApp, the researchers hoped to help users optimize the therapeutic effects of cannabis.
Users downloaded the application to their mobile device. After download, users chose whether they wanted their data to be included in the study.
Users recorded individual cannabis treatments through the app. They first entered information for the product they planned to consume, such as:
- Type of product (flower, edible, tincture, etc.)
- Combustion method if applicable (dry or water pipe, joint, vaporizer)
- Plant species (Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa, or hybrid)
- THC and CBD potency (most states with medical cannabis laws require potency labeling)
Before beginning a cannabis treatment session, the app asked the user to enter one or more negative health symptoms that they were experiencing. The ReleafApp contains 27 symptom choices including anxiety, different types of pain, insomnia, nausea, and muscle spasms. App users also entered the severity of their symptoms on a scale from 0 to 10.
At the end of a cannabis session, the users again recorded their symptom levels. They indicated any changes that occurred over the course of the session.
In a 21 month period between 2016 and 2018, the ReleafApp recorded nearly 20,000 sessions among more than 3,000 patients.
Users most commonly reported using dried cannabis flower and concentrates made from flower.
The researchers found that cannabis flower provided the most symptom relief compared to all other types of cannabis products. However, the combustion method did not appear to have any effect on symptom relief.
The average user reported a starting symptom level of 6 and improved their symptom severity by 3.5 points in a single session.
Surprisingly, while higher THC content was associated with greater symptom relief, the same was not true for CBD. The researchers didn’t see a significant association between symptom relief and the amount of CBD in a strain.
Another interesting finding was that higher levels of THC didn’t improve all types of symptoms. For example, on average, there was no correlation between higher levels of THC and greater relief for back pain.
This study fills in an important knowledge gap in current medical cannabis research. It’s the first study to measure how different aspects of cannabis affect immediate symptom relief in real people using products available on the market.
Despite a growing interest in the therapeutic effects of CBD, the study found that CBD had little effect on symptom relief. On the other hand, THC was significantly associated with symptom improvement. This suggests that the government should consider legalizing all types of cannabis, not just CBD products, for medical use by the general public.
The study also highlights the need for more information about the effects of different types of cannabis products. For most medical treatments, patients receive detailed dosing instructions. This type of information isn’t available for medical cannabis. Instead, patients must rely on information from the internet or the personnel working in dispensaries who rarely have extensive medical knowledge.
Many people are taking control of their healthcare by seeking cannabis as an alternative treatment. This study lays the groundwork to help people make informed choices when it comes to medical cannabis consumption.