Researchers at the University of Georgia will study the effects of legalized medical cannabis on those suffering from chronic pain thanks to a multi-million dollar grant.
The project, announced this week, will seek clarity on whether medical marijuana laws alter the health behaviors of people living with chronic pain and whether they substitute or reduce traditional pain treatments while using medical cannabis.
“We are thrilled to get started on this work,” said Grace Bagwell Adams, assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. “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 will have access to years of data on five million Medicare and five million Medicaid enrollees’ complete medical claims history, which will include all inpatient, outpatient and prescription drug use, as well as some information about socioeconomic status.
In addition, the research team will also examine comparable data on individuals with private insurance.
“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,” the school said in its announcement.
The project could help illustrate the real world policy effects in more than 30 states across the country that have legalized medical cannabis. It is also the latest in a flowering of academic research on marijuana, as governments, institutions and companies reconsider prohibitions on pot as concerns over prescription painkillers continue to mount.
The National Football League said in May that it would participate in a study on the effects of cannabis on pain management, a response to the growing number of players who have become addicted to prescription drugs.
In April, the cannabis investor Charles R. Broderick made a $9 million donation that was split between Harvard and MIT to support research into how marijuana affects the brain and behavior.
Broderick said the gift was driven by a desire “to fill the research void that currently exists in the science of cannabis.”
David Bradford, the public policy chair at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, said that the research announced this week will also fill a gap.
“Researchers have been able to document reductions in aggregate prescription use, especially opioids, after states implement [medical cannabis laws],” 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.”