Medical Marijuana and Painful Neuropathy -- An Opportunity to Make Us Believers

January 10, 2016

Paul E. Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, M.D., is director of the HIV Program and Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Medical marijuana is now officially available in New York, the city with by far the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. Reporting on the first dispensary in Manhattan, the aptly named Julie Weed (yes! her real name!) writes:

One of the most promising areas for research is the substitution of medical marijuana for opioids like OxyContin and Percocet for pain management ... "68% of our patients with AIDS-related neuropathy have said that medical marijuana has allowed them to stop taking opioid prescription pain killers which can be addictive, cause a variety of harmful side-effects, and -- most critically -- are the cause of thousands of overdose deaths per year."

Some thoughts based on this claim, and the long history of medical marijuana and HIV/AIDS:

  • Could 68% of patients with painful peripheral neuropathy really stop opioid pain killers with marijuana? Wow. If that's true, it's huge -- even half this rate would be a dramatic advance. Among the most frustrating conditions in all of medicine, painful peripheral neuropathy has a list of treatments as varied as the products sold in the "Cough and Cold" aisle at your pharmacy -- and are, unfortunately, about equally effective. Proven strategies to help people come off chronic narcotics are badly needed.
  • HIV specialists have been hearing about the medical use of marijuana even longer than we've had effective antiretroviral therapy. Initially touted as an appetite stimulant for HIV-related anorexia and weight loss, and as palliative therapy to ease the pain of death and dying, it gained further use in the mid-1990s when early HIV-related combination regimens caused so much nausea. This randomized clinical trial led by Donald Abrams -- who has done some of the best work studying marijuana in HIV against great odds -- found that 5 days of smoked cannabis was more effective than placebo in 50 patients with painful peripheral neuropathy. Of course blinding the study arms was (and remains) essentially impossible given the euphoric effects of the drug, but maybe that's the whole point.
  • Just legalize the stuff already. That's how I'd characterize the opinion on marijuana for the vast majority of the doctors, nurses, and social workers I work with, some of whom (like me) both remember Woodstock (the original one, kids) and enjoy the music from it, or are younger, and have the same view. If marijuana is legalized, it can be more easily regulated, taxed, and studied (see below) -- just like that other legal psychoactive drug, alcohol. Seems like this is hardly a minority view (the link is to the source of the graphic at the top of the page).
  • Legalization would allow more rigorous studies of therapeutic use, long-term effects, and safety. Such studies are now essentially prohibited by the federal government since marijuana is considered a drug of abuse. As a result, many claims about its medical indications are based on either small, short term, or methodologically questionable studies or, even worse, strongly-held beliefs based mostly on anecdote -- the weakest form of scientific evidence. That is, I'm afraid, what that "68% have stopped their opiates" claim is from the opening paragraph. Until it's studied more rigorously, we're stuck with the frustration of dealing with claims that marijuana is a valid treatment for practically every chronic condition under the sun. A similar claim might be made of benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin -- which definitely make people feel better -- but clinical research has more clearly defined both the benefits and risks of this drug class.
  • The quasi-medical atmosphere of some marijuana dispensaries is a huge negative to the acceptance of legitimate medical use. Got a free 10 minutes? That plus saying you have "insomnia" gets you a weed license for the medical stuff in Venice, no medical records required. Medical marijuana exists in this bizarre parallel system to "real" FDA approved drugs, and the absence of good scientific data means that the indications for use state-by-state are literally and figuratively all over the map. Got to love this indication (and I use the word loosely) for medical use from California: "Any other chronic or persistent medical symptom that substantially limits the ability of the person to conduct one or more major life activities (as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) or, if not alleviated, may cause serious harm to the patient's safety or physical or mental health." If it's based on patient report, that covers pretty much anything, doesn't it?

So what's my take right now? Count me in the same camp as these authors, who published their views in a JAMA editorial last year, writing:

If the states' initiative to legalize medical marijuana is merely a veiled step toward allowing access to recreational marijuana, then the medical community should be left out of the process, and instead marijuana should be decriminalized. ... Evidence justifying marijuana use for various medical conditions will require the conduct of adequately powered, double-blind, randomized, placebo/active controlled clinical trials to test its short- and long-term efficacy and safety. The federal government and states should support medical marijuana research.

Marijuana Laws by State

Totally agree. Meanwhile, here's a study design free for the taking:

Title: A randomized, blinded study of cannabis versus placebo to reduce opiate use in HIV-related neuropathic pain.
Entry criteria: Painful HIV-related neuropathy for ≥3 months, confirmed by a neurologist at screening, and requiring the use of opiates for control. Stable doses of opiates for at least 4 weeks prior to screening are required. HIV RNA must be < 50 copies/mL on non-neurotoxic containing ART.
Intervention: Smoked cannabis or placebo for 24 weeks; up to daily use as desired by study subjects. Adjunctive therapies (gabapentin, antiepileptics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acupuncture) will be administered at the discretion of the investigators.
Primary endpoint: Time to cessation of opiate use as estimated by the Kaplan-Meier method.
Secondary endpoints: Time to reduction in 25, 50, and 75% of opiate use; absolute and relative reduction in opiate dose. Proportion opiate free at study completion. And what the hell, might as well also do Numeric Pain Rating Scale, Change in Pain Inventory Score, Numeric Rating Scale Sleep Interference Score, Medical Outcomes Study Sleep Scale, Patient Global Impression of Change of Pain, and all those other neuropathy assessments. Throw in some neurocognitive testing just for fun.
Funding: National Institutes of Health

You're welcome!

Let's see if what you think.

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This article was provided by Journal Watch. Journal Watch is a publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
See Also
Marijuana Use Tied to Lower Insulin Resistance Risk in HIV/HCV-Coinfected Patients
How Marijuana Use Affects HIV Testing and Care

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Dr Simeon Obiora Ukagba (Ca) Thu., Feb. 4, 2016 at 5:14 am UTC
I support medical marijuana research because of its assumed benefits
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Comment by: Raphael Klarfeld (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) Sun., Jan. 17, 2016 at 10:57 am UTC
Unfortunately, I have severe neuropathy and am opioid dependent but it is illegal in FL and I have no chance to even try it legally. When will things change?
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Dave R (Amsterdam, Netherlands) Thu., Jan. 14, 2016 at 3:08 pm UTC
Really...enough already with the 'doubtful tone'. Marijuana is one of two proven analgesics that really work for nerve pain (the other is capsaicin. This has been the case for at least ten years. I really believe you have to look a little further than the US borders for your research. You'll find relatively large scale studies from across the world that bear this out. Further, nobody needs to smoke cannabis,or get 'high' to use it as a treatment for neuropathy. There are many forms of medical marijuana, specifically bred to reduce the THC levels and manipulate the Sativa and Indica levels so that the marijuana produced by a specific plant gives an entirely different effect than your standard 'joint'. The botanical science surrounding marijuana has moved on somewhat since Woodstock!! Cannabis oils are also extremely effective for many people living with neuropathy. There's a whole world of knowledge out there that takes cannabis far away from the war-on-drugs-thinking that stifles so much US commentary. Finally, of course the idea that someone can one day stop the oxycontin, or other opioids, (which by the way, if they have severe neuropathy they NEED - all other alternatives exhausted) and smoke a joint as a substitute is media hype. Patients need to wean themselves off the opioids and onto cannabinoids and that takes some considerable time but the end result is certainly very promising. First step is to take the connotations out of cannabis and start seeing it for what it is - a very useful medicinal herb.
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