Lifting the Lid on Medical Marijuana Research

Let’s be blunt—marijuana is a topic that is still being hotly debated as the plant gains legal status in states throughout the nation with each new election cycle. Part of this debate is its long standing as illegal, first in the 1930s, and then again when it was placed as a Schedule I drug by the Nixon administration in 1971; Schedule I drugs, “are illegal because they have high abuse potential, no medical use, and severe safety concerns; for example, narcotics such as Heroin, LSD, and cocaine.”

However, this doesn’t truly describe marijuana. It does not present overdose potential (no one has ever overdosed on marijuana). Its abuse potential is limited.  As Alliant’s own Dr. Fred Heide says, “In our research on the spiritual use of cannabis, we found that only about 5% of those who used it frequently had severe use disorder and 6% had moderate use disorder. The mild disorder, it’s not even clear how valid that is…” And, there are mountains of anecdotal evidence to its medical efficacy as a treatment for everything from glaucoma and HIV to depression and anxiety. Even the current DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) questions their own criteria on the subject by recommending anyone meeting 2 criteria as having a ‘mild disorder’ with the committee then turning around and saying not to use ‘disorder’ for anyone meeting only 2 criteria.

Suffice to say, it’s a bit of a confusing subject when it comes to the hard and soft science we typically look to when describing the efficacy of marijuana as a mental health treatment, and when ascribing its use as a treatment drug.

There are a few factors at play that prevent the kind of studies that we should expect to see for a drug that, in 31 states, is considered a valid medical treatment. One issue is recency. Since the push for medical and recreational legalization of marijuana is such a relatively new thing, there just hasn’t been the time to study its medicinal effects as one would expect. Another is the reticence of the pharmaceutical industry to engage in studies on medical marijuana. Without a proprietary stake in marijuana, the big science that goes into prescription pills like Zoloft or Prozac just isn’t there because the biggest research spender just isn’t spending on it.

However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t work being done, nor that that work is yielding positive results. In the December 2018 issue of Monitor on Psychology, there is an article that describes the efforts of one such researcher, Dr. Mallory Loflin, a research scientist with the Center of Excellence for Stress and Mental Health at the VA San Diego Healthcare System. Her study is a double-blind, placebo-controlled test of the efficacy of CBD in conjunction with prolonged-exposure therapy. Loflin will test the hypothesis that using CBD can increase the efficiency and efficacy of prolonged-exposure therapy in PTSD patients, which will involve 136 veterans with PTSD, and is the first research project involving cannabinoids (the active ingredient in cannabis) to be funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, thus, marking its legitimacy as a potential medical and psychological treatment on a federal scale for the first time.

Another such study is one being conducted by Dr. Staci Gruber, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Her study is on the effect of both THC and CBD on patients’ cognitive performance, sleep, quality of life, mental health, and other variables. This study has found that patients who use cannabis to treat a wide range of problems, including anxiety, have shown improvements in cognitive performance, have shown a reduction in clinical symptoms (per the DSM-5 criteria), as well as reduced use of conventional, prescription medications (such as Prozac and Zoloft). Her next study, which is beginning enrollment, is to study the effect of CBD on anxiety, and she is hopeful that this study will provide much-needed information on the efficacy of CBD as a mental health treatment.

Ultimately, though, studying marijuana as a medical and mental health treatment remains difficult because of the above-mentioned challenges in regard to funding, sample size, and definitive correlative results. However, as long as there are doctors like Dr. Gruber, Dr. Loflin, and Dr. Heide willing to put in the time, energy, and effort into studying the value of marijuana, the forward march toward progress on this issue will never cease, even if it’s going slower than many wish it would.

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