Guideline gives weak support to trying oral medical cannabis for chronic pain



Navigating the landscape

Although promising, the medical cannabis landscape is undoubtedly difficult to navigate, with land mines ranging from a limited inability to simply pick up a prescribing pad to quality control.

With the exception of three Food and Drug Administration–approved products – dronabinol, cannabidiol Rx, and nabilone – U.S. providers are only able to ‘certify,’ not prescribe, medical cannabis for chronic pain, and only if it is included within the state cannabis board’s list of eligible conditions. (A state-by-state guide is available.)

Jenny Wilkerson, PhD, University of Florida College of Pharmacy Dr. Jenny Wilkerson

Dr. Jenny Wilkerson

Quality control also varies by product but is critical. “You want to look for certificates of quality assurance,” Jenny Wilkerson, PhD, a research assistant professor of pharmacodynamics at the University of Florida, Gainesville, said in an interview. (Dr. Wilkerson was not involved in the guideline development.)

“A good dispensary should have that information or at least be willing to get that information, but generally speaking, that is something that patients need to ask for,” she emphasized, noting that “most available mass readouts are not divided by lots.”

Initial counseling and AE monitoring and regular follow-up is important, especially among patients who’ve never tried medical cannabis (or older patients whose prior experience may be limited to weaker recreational marijuana).

Notably, the reliance on medical dispensaries to deliver the right information at the right time may prove to be faulty. While recent data show that frontline dispensary workers regularly provide information to customers on their medical conditions and available products, they rarely, if ever, base recommendations on provider input, and never or rarely discuss potential AEs and other risks.

Per the new guideline, inexperienced patients should be seen monthly until a stable dose is achieved; longer times between visits can be considered in those who are more experienced. Still, patients should be advised to contact their provider when pain relief or other goals are insufficient, or when response or problematic AEs occur. This facilitates down-titration to a previously tolerated dose, up-titration in CBD and/or THC, or a different route of administration/formulation altogether.

Dr. Wilkerson pointed out that follow-up visits also provide an opportunity to do a blood draw and ask the lab to conduct pharmacokinetic analysis.

If possible, “ask patients to [ensure that they] take a standard dose before the visit so that the lab can assess the blood percentage of primary compounds and metabolites in the product that they are using,” she explained, noting that the information is helping to determine how “the different ratios may be affecting therapeutic response in individual patients.”

Granted, the guideline is only a start. But it is a good one.

“A lot of physicians want to be able to hang their hat on evidence of the safety and efficacy of these products, and the analysis that was leveraged for this guideline was very rigorous,” Dr. Cooper said.

Not only do they reinforce that “oral cannabinoids can produce small improvements in pain and provide a dosing structure that minimizes risk to the patient, [but they] should be able to help educate physicians who [are looking] for a sense of what the literature tells us at this time,” she added.

“With chronic pain, we often find that different treatments will show small potential benefits and they have a certain risk profile,” Dr. Busse said.

“It’s almost impossible to know what patients think about this option unless you present them with the evidence and ask them to make a decision based on their values and preferences,” he said.

The Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research funded the MAGIC Evidence Ecosystem Foundation to support the creation of the guideline. The center receives no funding from industry Dr. Busse, Dr. Cooper, and Dr. Wilkerson reported having no relevant financial relationships.


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