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Marijuana, Narcotics Help Patients Reduce Chronic Pain, Study Finds

Medical Marijuana Vaporizer

First Posted: 12/08/11 04:05 PM ET Updated: 12/08/11 04:16 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- A new study out of UC San Francisco has found that medical marijuana, combined with certain opiates, appears to be a safe and effective treatment for patients with chronic pain.

The study, published this month in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, found that patients who use cannabinoids inhaled through a vaporizer, combined with long-acting morphine or long-acting oxycodone, experienced a greater reduction of pain than those who used opiates alone.

The 21 chronic pain patients involved in the study were split into two groups. Those who combined four consecutive days of exposure to vaporized cannabis with morphine experienced a 33 percent reduction in pain, while those who combined it with oxycodone saw a drop in pain of 20 percent. The study is the first to examine the combined effect of these drugs on humans.

"Pain is a big problem in America and chronic pain is a reason many people utilize the health care system," said lead author Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at UCSF and chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. "And chronic pain is, unfortunately, one of the problems we're least capable of managing effectively."

Abrams, a cancer doctor, has said that if the study can be corroborated by further research, marijuana could become a treatment for AIDS and cancer patients, augmenting with minimal side effects the benefits that narcotics provide to chronic pain patients.

Abrams said his study implies that patients may be able to get away with taking lower doses of opiates for longer periods of time if they take them in conjunction with vaporized cannabis

That's a laudable goal, since opiates, while a powerful pain medication, are also highly addictive and can prove deadly when they impair function of the respiratory system.

David Downs in the East Bay Express addressed the current problems of access that chronic pain patients face in getting medical marijuana, a problem that's only enhanced by the federal government's recent crackdown on pot dispensaries.

Fifteen years after Proposition 215 enshrined in the California Constitution a medical right to cannabis for the sick and dying, the sick and dying have the hardest time getting it. In fact, seniors and the sick had a difficult time getting access to medical marijuana even before the federal crackdown, back when many California patients had little trouble buying it, and the difficulty only increased as they progresssed from independent living to assisted living, nursing homes, hospitals, and in many instances, hospice.

"I think one of the greatest disappointments of the last sixteen years is that we have not been able to provide sufficient access for folks at the end of life," said Stephen DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland. "If you take a look at the things cannabis is most effective for, it reads like a laundry list of ailments afflicting seniors: stress, depression, anxiety, pain, insomnia. This is a tremendously underserved population."

The California Medical Association in October called for the legalization of medical cannabis "exclusively on medical and scientific grounds," arguing further research should be done on the drug to better determine its medicinal benefits.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of using medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. The drug Sativex, a cannabinoid mouth spray, is already on the market in Europe and Canada.

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