Amid opioid crisis, researchers aim to put medical marijuana to the test

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Since California first took the leap in 1996, 30 more states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana to treat pain.

Anecdotal and historical accounts of pot’s painkilling properties abound. But so far, scientific evidence that it works better than traditional painkillers is hard to come by.

Because the U.S. government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with no medical use — like heroin and cocaine — funding for research is hard to get, scientists say. And as a 2015 article in the journal Current Pain and Headache Reports points out, high-quality clinical studies of pot’s effectiveness — randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled — are limited.

Dr. Jeffrey Chen wants to change that.

“The public consumption of cannabis has already far outpaced our scientific understanding,” said Chen, director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We really desperately need to catch up.”

To that end, the initiative, one of the first academic programs in the world dedicated to the study of cannabis, is hoping to conduct a high-quality study using opioid patients.

Edythe London, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the UCLA school of medicine, said she has designed the study to test different combinations of THC, the principal psychoactive component of marijuana, and cannabidiol, an anti-inflammatory component that does not get the user “high.”