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University study to examine effects of medical marijuana

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 29, 2013

The use of medical marijuana as a pain reliever has long been of high interest to activists, scientists and policymakers. Appealing to these interests, a new study at the University will work to determine the exact benefits medical marijuana may offer to those who suffer from various medical afflictions.

Michigan, which legalized medical marijuana in 2008, has 135,267 patients registered to buy and use the drug, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The state is one of the 18, along with Washington D.C., to have legalized medical marijuana.

Researchers plan to identify 800 participants by approaching new patients who have already made the decision to become a registered medical marijuana user in Michigan. Interested participants cannot contact the researchers.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse donated $2.2 million towards the fulfillment of this project. The available funds will be used to compensate participants for their time, pay support staff and support the infrastructure needed to conduct such research.

Data collection will occur over the span of two years, during which the researchers will follow up with participants about their pain and health levels since becoming registered medical marijuana users. The follow-up procedures will take place every six months and will be conducted by researchers in-person.

Mark Ilgen, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Medical School and leader of the study, said although researchers had been interested in carrying out this kind of study for a while, writing grants and scrutinizing the details delayed the procedure.

However, now that plans to carry out the study have been made, he said his team was “very excited.”

Some studies already exist to determine the potential efficacy of medical marijuana as a pain reliever, but they are often similar to studies that examine other pain-relief medications and do not take into account long-term results or the overall quality of life of participants.

“We plan to identify people seeking a card for a first time, get data on how they’re functioning and feeling when they show up to the clinic (for the first time), and track changes over two years,” Ilgen said.

Unlike other studies, this research methodology will not rely on a control group, but will instead identify subgroups of people by clustering those with similar characteristics— such as symptoms and levels of functionality.

Given the lack of adequate information and guidelines for medical advisors when prescribing medical marijuana, Ilgen said there was all the more need for a “neutral information” standard.

“Well-meaning providers felt that there wasn’t a lot of data behind the use of medical marijuana as a pain reliever,” he said. “(They found ) there aren’t a lot of clear guidelines about what advice treatment advisors should give their patients.”

Ilgen added that a concern for the design of the study was the fact that a lot of the data—such as pain levels and how participants were faring in life—were self-reported, and hence subjective.

However, in this study, researchers will include more objective standards such as level of alcohol and other drug use, and number of visits to the emergency room to determine the effects of medical marijuana both on patient pain levels and overall functionality.

To add to the existing data, researchers had considered including reports by family members regarding how participants were doing as part of the data collection but ultimately decided against it.

“With all these approaches there are pros and cons, and one of the clear trade offs is the cost to confidentiality to involve anyone else in the study,” Ilgen said. “We wanted to err on the side of respecting participant confidentiality, (but) there are a number of interesting directions this research could go in follow up study like how medical marijuana use affects a family.”

Another idea was to test each participant’s marijuana to determine its potency, but Ilgen said that liability concerns, combined with the fact that participants may be using different strains, led researchers to decide against it.

The breadth of available data and the lack of current information regarding the advantages of medical marijuana called for extensive research, Ilgen said. The research showed a unique potential as compared to other projects.

“I’ve been e-mailed about patients who are really passionate about this, and that’s never happened to me before,” he said. “It really does feel so new and important.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated that researchers will include more objective standards such as level of alcohol and other drug use, and number of visits to the emergency room in future studies. These more objective standards will be included in this study.