According to a new study, regular marijuana use is associated with improved cognition and reduced pain in cancer patients and people receiving chemotherapy.
While cannabis produces intoxicating effects and that initial “high” can temporarily impair cognition, patients who have used marijuana products at state-licensed dispensaries for two weeks have actually begun to report a clearer thinking, according to the University of Colorado study.
The study results, published in the journal Exploration in Medicine late last month, were startling, researcher Angela Bryan, herself a cancer survivor, said in a press release.
“We thought we might see issues with cognitive function,” she said. “But people actually felt like they were thinking more clearly. It was a surprise.”
A groundbreaking new study, co-authored by members of @cuchangeshows that cancer patients who use cannabis to treat their symptoms have less pain, sleep better and, after weeks of sustained use, seem to think more clearly.
Read more ⬇️⬇️⬇️https://t.co/1AEwBvv2uZ
— CU Boulder Psychology and Neuroscience (@CUPsychandNeuro) April 28, 2023
Additionally, all 25 study participants reported that they slept better and experienced less pain associated with their cancer symptoms or chemotherapy side effects.
The study is notable for another reason: Patients took a variety of cannabis edibles that they individually chose from dispensaries across Colorado. This included infused tinctures, baked goods, gummies, and other cannabis edibles with different cannabinoid profiles.
Since marijuana remains federally prohibited, the majority of studies conducted in the United States rely on pharmaceutical-grade cannabis drugs like dronabinol or standardized marijuana grown in a federally-licensed source, which tends to be low in THC and devoid of other cannabinoids.
Bipartisan lawmakers in Congress have pushed to free up researchers to access cannabis at dispensaries — and top federal officials have backed the idea of giving scientists that option. But the practice remains banned for now, meaning studies like the current one involve patients buying their own cannabis and then reporting it to researchers, instead of scientists picking out the dispensary products themselves. they would like to study and provide them to the participants.
What this study suggests is that there are benefits to examining the effects of marijuana available in a growing number of state markets. The overall conclusion was that cannabis has significant therapeutic potential for cancer patients; but it also provided insight into how different products produce different effects.
For example, researchers found that patients who consumed edibles with higher CBD concentrations reported lower levels of pain than those who consumed THC-rich products.
Bryan said “people are open to trying whatever they think is helpful, but there just isn’t a whole lot of data available to guide them on what works best for what.”
For the study, patients were asked to purchase the marijuana edibles at dispensaries. Then, researchers traveled to each subject’s home in a mobile lab van (nicknamed the “cannavan”) to perform physical and cognitive tests before and after the person consumed cannabis.
“Two weeks of ad libitum cannabis use was associated with improvements in pain intensity and interference, sleep quality, and subjective cognitive functioning.”
Pain levels dropped within an hour of use, but patients reported feeling the intoxicating, cognition-altering high. This acute effect was eventually supplanted by mental clarity over time, the researchers observed during two-week follow-ups. Objective measures of cognition, such as reaction time, also improved after long-term use.
“This observational study is one of the first of its kind to examine associations between the legal market, palliative cannabis use, and subjective and objective outcomes in cancer patients,” the study states. “These early findings regarding pain intensity, sleep quality, and cognitive function may help inform future comprehensive studies on this important topic.”
Gregory Giordano, one of the study authors, said oncologists and patients are “concerned about the possible negative impact of cancer treatment on cognitive function, so the potential indirect role of consumption of cannabis on improving subjective cognitive function should be further investigated.”
Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) promoted funding opportunities for researchers to study the benefits and risks of marijuana for cancer patients.
The pain-relieving qualities of cannabis are attracting strong interest, especially amid an opioid epidemic that has raised questions about the long-term risks of opioid use.
To that end, numerous studies have linked cannabis legalization and self-reported marijuana use to reduced opioid prescribing and overdose deaths.
A study published earlier this year by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that chronic pain patients who received medical cannabis for more than a month saw significant reductions in prescribed opioids.
The AMA also published research late last year that linked state legalization of cannabis to reduced opioid prescribing for some cancer patients.
State-level marijuana legalization is also associated with notable reductions in prescribing the specific opioid codeine, according to another recent study that leverages data from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.