Seth Ginsberg Opinion contributor
Published 5:00 AM EDT Jul 23, 2019
Marijuana’s role in the health care universe has grown exponentially over the past few years. Currently, 33 U.S. states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, and more and more states are considering making it legal for recreational purposes as well. As cannabis becomes more accessible, many people are turning to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) products to treat health issues like rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease (the aches and pains of arthritis).
Unfortunately, because cannabis remains illegal and classified as a Schedule 1 drug under federal law (defined as being of no medical use), there has been a troubling lack of scientific and medical research on the effectiveness of cannabis treatments. This dearth of evidence-based data has left many health care providers unable to counsel their patients on everything from whether a cannabis treatment could be effective for their condition, to what dosages are appropriate, to how cannabis might interact with their other medications or health conditions.
Many patients flying blind on cannabis
This lack of information hasn’t stopped patients from exploring the use of cannabis treatments on their own, as marijuana becomes available, if not ubiquitous, in more states. The online arthritis patient community CreakyJoints, which I co-founded, recently conducted a study of its ArthritisPower registry and found that more than half of arthritis patients have tried marijuana or cannabidiol products for medical purposes. However, the study also found that only two-thirds of these patients reported telling their health care provider about their use. So many patients are flying completely blind while trying cannabis related treatments without any awareness by, or input from, their doctor.
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Of those who did consult with a doctor, 58% reported that their health care provider did not offer advice about effectiveness or proper dosage, nor did they consider marijuana or CBD use when making treatment changes. As a result, many patients are left to rely on anecdotes or experimentation to determine whether cannabis products may be helpful to their conditions or symptoms.
This lack of information is unsurprising. Because of the federal government’s position on cannabis, research into the medical benefits of cannabis is highly restricted, and there have been few robust clinical trials on the impact of marijuana or CBD on most health conditions.
As a result, most of the relevant research is being conducted by private companies, while academic and medical institutions lag behind. These private companies are not approved by institutional review boards and do not publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals. That means that the most valuable information is not publicly available to inform doctors about what products might or might not work for individual patients.
Bridge the marijuana education gap
Another consequence of these federal restrictions is that medical schools are not offering medical marijuana courses or encouraging their residents to explore the subject matter. This has left many doctors in the difficult position of being unable to offer clinical, evidence-based advice to their patients about cannabis treatments.
States lead the way: Pot never should have been illegal in the first place
The use of marijuana and CBD, whether prescribed by a doctor or obtained through other means, is clearly on the rise. That makes it more important than ever for these substances to be tested to assess their safety, dosing and effectiveness so that both patients and doctors can be armed with the best available evidence when it comes to treatment decisions.
If medical professionals are going to properly advise their patients about all available treatments, including marijuana and CBD supplements, we must bridge the information gap. Doctors and patients must demand changes to the federal restrictions on medical cannabis research to allow for more and higher quality clinical trials and evidence-based medical information. It’s clear that patients are going to continue using CBD and marijuana, so we must ensure that medical professionals have the knowledge to make sure they’re using it effectively. Anything short of this is irresponsible medicine not becoming of a first-world country.
Seth Ginsberg is a co-founder of CreakyJoints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @SethSaidSo