Researchers to study medical cannabis and chronic pain

Oct. 9, 2019

A team of researchers at the University of Georgia will study how legalized medical cannabis affects people living with chronic pain.

To date, 34 states and the District of Columbia have adopted medical cannabis laws (MCLs) which legalize either home cultivation or dispensary-based sales of cannabis for qualifying medical conditions.

The researchers want to determine if MCLs alter the health behaviors of people living with chronic pain and whether they substitute or reduce traditional pain treatments while using medical cannabis. The research project is funded by a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

David Bradford, George D. Busbee Chair in Public Policy in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs, is joined by co-investigators Amanda Abraham, associate professor in SPIA, and Grace Bagwell Adams, assistant professor in the College of Public Health.

“We are thrilled to get started on this work,” said Adams. “Much of the policy change has happened quickly in a landscape that is not well understood at the patient level. This work is going to contribute to our understanding about the intersectionality of medical cannabis policy and the behavior of chronic pain patients.”

“Researchers have been able to document reductions in aggregate prescription use, especially opioids, after states implement MCLs,” Bradford said. “But there is almost no research on how a large representative sample of individual patients respond to medical cannabis access. Do we see lots of patients reducing opioid use, or just a few patients reducing by a lot? What happens to other kinds of health care use, like emergency room visits or physician office visits? We don’t know, and we’re excited to find out.”

The research will also break new ground for states like Georgia that have implemented access to low-THC/high-CBD cannabis extracts.

“So far, no one has examined whether these cannabis extract laws change health care use. We’ll be the first to systematically evaluate that, and hopefully can give Georgia and other policymakers some idea of what to expect as we continue to roll this policy out in the state,” Bradford said.

They will work with the Research Data Assistance Center (RESDac) at the University of Minnesota to get access to several years’ worth of data on 5 million Medicare and 5 million Medicaid enrollees’ complete medical claims history. This will include all inpatient, outpatient and prescription drug use, as well as some information about socioeconomic status.

The researchers will also get comparable information on privately insured individuals from the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) database that contains more than a decade’s worth of data on approximately 50 million individuals. For all three types of individuals – Medicare, Medicaid and HCCI/private insured – they will follow the same people over time and see how their pain management health care decisions change as they gain access to medical cannabis via changes in state laws.

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