Drug abuse center NIDA on why it’s supporting medical marijuana research

In Feature Stories, Research Updates and News by Dr. Tim Sandle, Ph.D.

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has issued a statement outlining its commitment to medical marijuana research. The statement, penned by NIDA Director Nora Volkow, includes a pledge to supply research-grade marijuana to researchers for scientific purposes.

NIDA is part of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (which acts as the U.S. medical research agency).

The Medical Marijuana Review spoke with Dr. Volkow to discover more about the recent med-cannabis research projects the organization is supporting.

Over the past five years, Dr. Volkow explains, NIDA has funded a wide range of research on and related to marijuana; the main psychoactive ingredient, THC; and chemicals related to THC (cannabinoids, non-psychoactive components of cannabis).

Some of the current research projects being backed by NIDA include the use of marijuana to prevent a relapse occurring with opiate addicts; discovering how cannabinoids can reduce brain inflammation caused by HIV; and the effects of medical marijuana on breast cancer–associated bone pain.

The use of medical marijuana to treat opiate addicts is being examined because treatments for addictions to opiates like heroin do not effectively block the opiate craving. Research carried out at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York suggests that cannabidiol can inhibit heroin-seeking behavior and that the effects can last for up to two weeks. The research is now at the stage where the optimal dose of cannabinoids is being determined.

A second research stream indicates that cannabinoids possess potent anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties that can potentially reduce the inflammatory processes in the brain which are triggered by HIV and can lead to neurodegeneration. The research, taking place at Temple University in Philadelphia, is currently at the animal study stage. It’s possible that the same mechanisms within cannabinoids could also reduce similar brain inflammation triggered by excessive alcohol abuse (what is termed alcohol-induced neuronal injury).

The third area of study focuses on bone pain linked to breast cancer. Advanced breast cancer causes a chronic, excruciating pain associated with metastasis of the cancer to bone. Such pain is currently extremely difficult to treat. But scientists at the University of Arizona are examining whether cannabinoids offer multiple beneficial actions to reduce breast cancer–induced bone pain. They’ll also find out if they can reduce tumor-induced bone destruction and fracture and reduce the growth of breast cancer cells. Results of mouse models are so far encouraging, Volkow says.

Many of the areas of NIDA research have focused on understanding how THC and other cannabinoids act in the brain and other parts of the body, especially in relation to their role in addiction, pain, inflammation, and helping to alleviate the illnesses associated with HIV infection. Due to the importance of the research and to avoid marijuana products ending up in the wrong hands, NIDA is the only U.S. federal body that is licensed to fund medical marijuana research.

With the development of different medications that NIDA supports, Dr. Volkow goes on to explain that NIDA’s goal is to produce cannabinoid palliatives that avoid the adverse effects of smoked marijuana while at the same time maximizing the potential therapeutic benefits. Unlike some other research groups, NIDA scientists believe that, due to various factors, smoked marijuana is therapeutically less promising than medications derived directly from cannabinoids. NIDA takes this stance due to its view of potential harmful health effects relating to smoked marijuana: those considered to be “short-lasting,” such as sedation and  cognitive and motor impairment, and those that are “long-lasting,” such as addiction or different respiratory effects.

Dr. Volkow says that some of the most interesting and important research funded by NIDA is looking into the working of the brain’s cannabinoid system to see how potential therapeutic uses of THC and other cannabinoids can be used for the treatment of pain. She explains, “NIDA has provided and continues to provide funding for research related to therapeutic uses of cannabinoids, as it pertains to its mission, including studies on the use of THC and cannabidiol, another chemical constituent of marijuana, for the treatment of pain (as an alternative to opioid pain relievers) and addiction nausea, obesity, wasting disease, addiction, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions.”

For the supply of research-grade marijuana, NIDA has a special contract with the University of Mississippi to grow marijuana for use in research studies. The marijuana is grown, harvested, stored, and made into cigarettes of varying THC content for research (typically with a potency of 2 to 4 percent THC). The cigarettes are provided free to registered researchers.

The policy relating to which groups of researchers receive NIDA funding and medical-grade marijuana sometimes proves controversial, with both the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians calling for more research into the therapeutic uses of marijuana and easier accessibility to research-grade materials. NIDA, however, adheres to a strict policy of research application review and avoids backing any research that involves the use of more potent concentrations of cannabinoids. This is due to safety concerns in relation to human trials.

As Dr. Volkow explains:

“Research proposals to study therapeutic benefits of marijuana or one of its ingredients must meet the same accepted standards of scientific design as any other proposal and, on the basis of peer review, should meet public health significance and Institute priorities and be competitive with other applications that qualify for funding.”

Photo via NIDA