Thanks to UCLA and research teams in B.C., cannabis is finally going under the microscope

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There are many very good reasons to study the potential health benefits of cannabis. The drug is consumed widely. And advocates for medicinal marijuana have long made sensational claims ranging from cannabis's ability to relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis to the plant's power to treat addictions to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

But there are far fewer solid studies of cannabis's medicinal effects than one might guess. That's because, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, cannabis is a Schedule I drug, which means it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse". Regulations associated with that Schedule I classification have long made it difficult for researchers to conduct truly rigorous studies of cannabis.

That's finally beginning to change as more U.S. states take steps away from prohibition and as Canada gets closer to officially legalizing cannabis this October. Now a team of researchers in California wants to conduct an in-depth review of cannabis's potential to treat one of the most pressing ailments facing North America today: pain.

According to NBC News, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) led by Dr. Jeffrey Chen intend to compile serious research on cannabis, starting with the drug's effects on pain.

“The public consumption of cannabis has already far outpaced our scientific understanding,” he told NBC News. “We really desperately need to catch up.”

Chen, director of UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative, noted the project has already cleared its first hurdle and secured funding from UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, federal and state sources, and private donors. Next, the team will have to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the project is worthy of approval to move ahead.

More specific than a study of pain in general, the project, which was designed by UCLA professor of psychiatry and pharmacology Edythe London, will look at patients who struggle with pain for which they are taking opioid painkillers such as oxycodone (brand name OxyContin) or Vicodin.

That's significant because North America is struggling with a sharp increase in overdose deaths attributed to opioids. If researchers identify cannabis as an effective treatment for pain and begin to better understand how cannabis works as a pain medication, that could spare some patients from taking an opioid, which is a class of drugs significantly more addictive and dangerous than cannabis.

In Canada, at least 6,965 people died of an opioid overdose between January 2016 and December 2017, according to the federal government.

“We're not trying to do pro-cannabis research or anti-cannabis research,” Chen told NBC News. “We're just trying to do good science.”

Organizations in B.C. have also begun closer scientific examinations of cannabis, including the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, groups based out of universities such as UBC and the University of Victoria, as well as private companies operating in Canada's soon-to-be-legal cannabis industry.

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