Are Legal Marijuana Products Really Too Strong for Pain Relief?

An estimated three and a half million people in the US take medical marijuana for various reasons. Chronic pain relief is a major reason for being prescribed this kind of product, however, it is also used to treat nausea caused by chemotherapy, muscle stiffness and spasms that are characteristic of multiple sclerosis (MS), and severe forms of epilepsy.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that more than 90 percent of mairjuana products in medical dispensaries in the U.S. are much stronger than what clinical studies suggested. Many of these products are recommended by doctors for chronic pain relief.

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Higher potency products carry greater risks of inducing substance-use disorders, therefore, it is important that strengths of medically available marijuana products lie within the levels deemed both effective and safe by clinical studies. High-exposure to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in cannabis, can have negative impacts on a person’s health, which is then counterintuitive to using these products therapeutically.

“We know that high-potency products should not have a place in the medical realm because of the high risk of developing cannabis-use disorders, which are related to exposure to high THC-content products,” E. Alfonso Romero-Sandoval, lead study author and associate professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine, said in a press release.

Previously, multiple studies have revealed that for a marijuana product to be effective at alleviating chronic pain with minimal adverse effects it should contain no more than 5% THC. Researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine set out to determine whether these levels are being maintained in marijuana products that are being supplied to medical dispensaries.

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The study aims to determine suitability of legal cannabis products for medicinal use based on their THC and CBD content. It also looked into the potency of marijuana offered in medical and recreational programs.

Researchers collected samples of more than 8,500 marijuana products from 653 dispensaries in the U.S. Some providers came from California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Washington. 

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The results showed that most products sampled that were available in medical dispensaries had greater than 10% concentrations of THC, with a significant amount containing 15% of the substance, much higher than the recommended 5%, reaching the same levels as products available at dispensaries supplying recreational marijuana.

“Several earlier studies showed that levels of up to 5 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that provides pain relief as well as intoxication – were sufficient to reduce chronic pain with minimal side effects,” Romero-Sandoval said. 

“Better regulation of the potency of medical marijuana products is critical,” Romero-Sandoval said. “The FDA regulates the level of over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen that have dose-specific side effects, so why don’t we have policies and regulations for cannabis, something that is far more dangerous?”

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