Finally, some cannabis research worth waiting for

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Leland Rucker
The state is suggesting funding eight cannabis research projects.

The state’s Public Health Department is recommending more than $7 million in grant money for eight studies centered on research into both the safety of cannabis and the possibilities for its use as a treatment for symptoms of various ailments and diseases.

Some of the research seems to be based around promising earlier work done outside the United States. A 2004 survey at the Prague Movement Disorder Center indicated that more that half of Parkinson’s Disease patients who tried cannabis noticed subjective improvement. Israeli researchers in 2013 presented an observational study of 17 Parkinson’s patients that showed a 30 percent increase in their average Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale. So “A Randomized, Double-blind, Placebocontrolled Crossover Study of Tolerability and Efficacy of Cannabidiol (CBD) on Tremor in Parkinson’s Disease” sounds really promising in finding out whether those results were subjective or not.

Another, “Cannabidiol (CBD) and Pediatric Epilepsy,” might share some insight into why CBD, one of the most active cannabinoids, eases symptoms of certain forms of epilepsy in children. This is a subject of interest to a growing number of Americans, especially after the Sanjay Gupta CNN medical marijuana documentaries last year and work done by Israeli scientists. Subjective evidence indicates there is definitely something happening, enough so that parents are moving to Colorado to gain access to a particular CBD strain. A scientific study might shed light on why it’s happening.

Some research has suggested a connection between the endocannabinoid system and how the brain processes traumatic memories. So “Treating PTSD with Marijuana: Clinical and Functional Outcomes” and “A Double Blind, Placebo-Controlled Cross Study Comparing the Analgesic Efficacy of Cannabis versus Oxycodone” aim right at the heart of a serious debate about whether cannabis might be effective in treating symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome in our veterans, who are sometimes treated with narcotic drugs, which puts them at risk for opioid abuse and other side effects.

Other studies approved include one on the use of cannabis to treat adolescents and young adults with inflammatory bowel disease and the use of CBD in possibly treating pediatric epilepsy and brain tumors.

The grants range from $472,000 to $2 million per project. The Board of Health will consider the recommendations Dec. 17. Beyond that, applicants will need federal approval to get access to government-grown cannabis, so research could begin as early as next year. It used to be virtually impossible to get approval for government marijuana product for any research that wasn’t aimed at proving cannabis abuse, not study its use. Let’s hope that more of this kind of research helps end that nonsense.

A steady-running prohibitionist meme these days touts studies that “prove” that marijuana causes users’ brains to shrink. And that has to be bad, right?

Turns out perhaps not. A study from researchers at the University of Texas (funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, no less) found that “chronic marijuana users have smaller brain volume in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a part of the brain commonly associated with addiction, but also increased brain connectivity.”

The study looked at 48 adult threetimes-daily marijuana users and 62 gender- and age-matched non-users. It employed several advanced MRI techniques to create brain images. “Cognitive tests show that chronic marijuana users had lower IQ compared to age- and gender-matched controls,” researchers wrote. “But the differences do not seem to be related to the brain abnormalities as no direct correlation can be drawn between IQ deficits and OFC volume decrease.”

Mainstream media outlets seemed to only read the first half of that particular sentence while not grasping the implications of the second. The researchers didn’t find that marijuana shrank the brains, and made clear that, most likely, other factors were involved outside the parameters of the study. But that didn’t stop the headline writers from chiming in with a new round of Reefer Madness.

“Regular pot smokers have shrunken brains, study says,” crowed the Los Angeles Times.

CNN warned, “Regular pot habit changes your brain, may even lower your IQ, study says.”

The Daily Mail took it a step further: “Smoking cannabis every day ‘warps your brain and shrinks grey matter,’ scientists warn.”

“We cannot honestly say that that is what’s happening here,” said Francesca Filbey, a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Texas, who headed the study, which didn’t address whether the differences in brain size might have existed before the subjects used cannabis or even whether the cannabis caused the brain shrinkage.

“The changes in connectivity may be considered a way of compensating for the reduction in volume,” Filbey said. “This may explain why chronic users appear to be doing fine, even though an important region of their brain is smaller in terms of volume.”

Cannabis isn’t a benign drug. It should be used and handled with care. Still, millions of Americans use it, whether legally or illegally, annually, monthly, weekly, daily or hourly. Their brains might be smaller, or larger, than other peoples’ brains. Their orbitofrontal cortices might be more connected, or less connected, than non-users. But most of them function in society just like anyone else. With legalization, we have even more control over its growth and distribution.

So bring on the research. Bring on the studies. But for goodness sakes, lay off the hyperbole.

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU. http:// news.kgnu.org/category/features/weedbetween-the-lines/ 

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com