For the last several decades, cannabis research in the United States has been severely restricted. Despite the growing movement for legalization, federal restrictions on the research of Schedule I substances have effectively prevented research facilities and universities from studying the plant. However, emboldened and driven by the newly legal, recreational market of California, UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative is pioneering academia into a new era of cannabis research.
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Led by Dr. Jeff Chen, the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative is one of the first programs in the world to target the study of cannabis. Dr. Chen, a graduate of UCLA, holds a specialized dual degree MD/MBA. Working for the last several years to accelerate cannabis research, Dr. Chen and his team’s top priority is understanding the long-suspected, but overlooked therapeutic potential of the herb, along with any health risks which might be associated with using the various cannabinoids in cannabis. However, as an interdisciplinary study, the researchers will also be evaluating the total impact of cannabis use on society in an effort to help guide public policy and public health decisions.
Image is courtesy of UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative.
UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative: Combining Science and Technology
In a phone interview with CannabisTech this week, Dr. Chen expressed his enthusiasm for the opportunities presented by the recent changes in legalization combined with modern technology. “For the first time in California history, soon, we’ll know exactly what people are using thanks to testing, regulation, and labeling,” Dr. Chen stated. In the past, understanding dosing and cannabinoid profiles have been difficult, but with legalization and regulation around dosing and packaging, researchers can better understand dosing and the associated effects.
In addition, with the proliferation of smart devices in the hands of more than 200 million people, Dr. Chen reminds us each patient is carrying a tiny supercomputer in the palm of their hands. This rapidly advancing technology may be the key to collecting and analyzing valid, reliable crowd-sourced data from cannabis patients.
While self-reporting symptoms can often be a bit subjective, these hand-held data collection tools may help researchers learn objective information using biometric and sensor data like the accelerometer. “Imagine, you have a patient with Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Chen explained. “Using a smart device to track the tremors, the patient then consumes a cannabis edible, and the smartphone can track the duration and severity of the tremor, as well as, show the onset, duration, and results of the edible.”
Tackling the Opioid Epidemic
While Dr. Chen certainly remains optimistic about the impact cannabis could have for chronic pain patients, he reminds, “The opioid epidemic is a very complex issue stemming from several factors including socioeconomic and cultural issues.” From the perspective of using cannabinoid therapy to reduce opioid use in pain patients, Dr. Chen believes there is certainly potential for cannabis to reduce the use of opiates citing recent studies showing a decline in prescription opiates in states where cannabis is legal.
“In fact, the more liberal the laws are on cannabis, we see a more dramatic effect in reducing the number of prescriptions,” Dr. Chen explained, “The ease of purchasing cannabis is associated with a more significant reduction in opioid use.”
Learning the Real Dangers, Too
Although a lethal overdose of cannabis has never occurred, as with any substance entering the human body, there is always the possibility of harmful side effects. Simple over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen even have dangerous side effects when used in excess or long term. In a recording for Tedx, Dr. Chen pointed out NSAIDs are responsible for about 10,000 deaths per year. So, regardless of how safe we think a drug is, we must always take into consideration what the dangers may be.
In asking Dr. Chen about his thoughts on the harmful effects of cannabis, he quickly sums up the major concerns:
- Adolescent Brain Development – cannabis use during adolescence can lead to a myriad of developmental issues including lower IQ.
- Mental Health Issues – it has been found, in those with a family history of schizophrenia, heavy use of cannabis early in life increases your odds of developing the disease later in life. In addition, Dr. Chen mentioned some patients who self-report cannabis use have been associated with higher incidence of depression and anxiety.
- Cannabis use during pregnancy – using cannabis during pregnancy can result in a lower birth weight in babies.
- Driving Under the Influence – although not as risky as alcohol, your risk of being involved in an accident doubles while under the influence of cannabis.
- Abuse and Dependency – although less addicting than alcohol, opiates, and cigarettes, cannabis still has an addiction rate of 9% that both physician and patient need to be aware of.
Finding the Funds for the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative
The UCLA Cannabis Research Institute is currently working on starting the world’s first clinical trials to study the impact of cannabis in opiate patients. Working on funding and grants now, Dr. Chen’s team is looking forward to beginning the research. In addition, the department has plans for new funding campaign which is scheduled to launch at the end of the year. Anticipated to be one the largest crowd-funding campaigns ever to help fund much-needed cannabis research. Dr. Chen commented,
“If the government won’t provide the necessary funding for the research, then the people need to come together to fund it. While we don’t need to agree we should all be using it, we just need to agree that we need the research.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the research being conducted by Dr. Chen and his team at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative or would like to donate to support their research, visit their website at https://www.uclahealth.org/cannabis.