Study to probe safety of using pot for pain

December 08, 2004

Debora Van Brenk, Free Press

Pain patients in London will be able to join a national study to test medicinal pot's safety. It's believed to be the first scientific look at how medical marijuana interacts or interferes with health problems and conventional medicines, said pain specialist Dr. Mark Ware, leading the study from McGill University Health Centre.

'As far as I know, nowhere else in the world' has this been done, he said yesterday.

Other studies test how well cannabis relieves pain, which isn't the intent of this work.

Pain researcher Dr. Dwight Moulin of London Health Sciences Centre and Lawson Health Research Institute is heading the London study.

He will work with 50 people who use medicinal marijuana against pain and 150 pain sufferers who don't use pot.

All told, 1,400 chronic-pain patients will be studied at seven pain clinics nationwide.

Most will be people whose pain stems from multiple sclerosis, arthritis or spinal cord injuries. (Cancer patients are excluded from the study.)

'We're looking to see what the safety issues might be,' Ware said.

There's a possibility other medications may interact with marijuana to make some or all those drugs more, or less, effective, Ware said.

Participants will be followed for a year and undergo chest x-rays, memory questions and tests for heart, lung, kidney and liver function.

Researchers hope to emerge with a clearer picture of pot's side effects on people with chronic pain and whether those effects outweigh the benefits.

Conventional drugs are ordinarily subjected to rigorous safety and other testing before being approved for use.

But Health Canada approved the use of medicinal pot more than a year ago.

'We're sort of forced to work backwards' from the normal course of events, Ware said.

The approach may even become a template for testing natural health products, Ware said.

The cannabis to be used in this study is produced by Prairie Plant Systems under contract to Health Canada.

It contains about 12 per cent THC, the chemical that produces the pain relief.

The study is supported by a $1.8-million grant from Health Canada, which will be kept abreast of results.

Ware said doctors will already know most patients who are eligible for the study. But those interested in participating can call 1-866-302-4636 and leave their contact information.

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