Can marijuana help curb opioid prescriptions? Connecticut study aims to find out

In the first trial on medical marijuana sanctioned by the state of Connecticut, physicians at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford will study if marijuana can curb opioid prescriptions for acute pain management.

St. Francis Hospital plans to enroll 60 rib fracture patients in the clinical trial — 30 will be administered marijuana for pain management and 30 will be given traditional opioid painkiller prescriptions.

"I looked into the literature on medical marijuana for cancer patients as treatment for chronic pain and, thinking about the lack of solid treatment options [besides opioids] for acute pain, thought we should study it," James Feeney, MD, one of the trial's leaders and the director of trauma services at St. Francis, told Becker's in an interview

Public opinion on marijuana use has shifted greatly in the last 20 years — more than half of the states in the union have a law legalizing marijuana in some form. While recreational use of the substance is still illegal in Connecticut, the state has had laws on the books legalizing the medicinal use of the drug since 2012. Opinion on the validity of marijuana as a potential medicine has also been changing among the medical community. However, stigma around medical marijuana use still lingers, as the substance is still categorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the same drug schedule as heroin.

"I think physicians grew up with this idea that what we do for pain is what's legal and what's available. You really couldn't be the one to experiment with Schedule I or Schedule II drugs for pain control," says Dr. Feeney. "It's a completely different atmosphere than when I went into med school in 1996. Completely different."

While Dr. Feeney describes Connecticut as "years ahead" when it comes to medical marijuana, the state's blessing doesn't come furnished with funding. Dr. Feeney and colleagues are taking it upon themselves to raise the $30,000 to $50,000 necessary to conduct the trial.

In the future, Dr. Feeney sees marijuana likely fitting into the multimodal pain management techniques currently on the rise as the healthcare community attempts to decrease the widespread dissemination of opioid painkillers. Dr. Feeney believes, as the science surrounding medical marijuana progresses, the mechanisms by which THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, is introduced into the body will become more refined, perhaps enhancing its pain reducing qualities.

While Dr. Feeney doesn't view marijuana as a "magic bullet" solution for curbing opioid prescriptions and says further research beyond his study will be needed to build on the findings to establish marijuana as a viable opioid alternative. However, he is hopeful about the study's potential and says he and his colleagues will let the data speak for itself.

"We're going to put this question to bed one way or another," says Dr. Feeney.

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