Research supports cannabis in MS, but legal, clinical pictures are murky


The medical marijuana landscape is changing so fast that Colorado Neurological Institute neurologist Allen C. Bowling, MD, PhD, already needs to update a presentation he gave about cannabis in multiple sclerosis in late May.

Dr. Allen C. Bowling, a neurologist with the Colorado Neurological Institute

Dr. Allen C. Bowling

That’s when Dr. Bowling spoke about the topic in a presentation at the 2018 annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers. At the time, 29 states allowed the medical use of marijuana, and not a single cannabis-derived medication could boast Food and Drug Administration approval.

Since then, both those facts became history over a span of 2 days.

First, on June 25, the FDA announced its approval of Epidiolex (cannabidiol) for the treatment of seizures in two rare forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. It’s the first time the FDA has approved a drug with a purified ingredient – cannabidiol, a nonpsychoactive substance – that’s derived from marijuana.

Then, on June 26, voters in Oklahoma approved a ballot measure that allows the possession of marijuana for medical use; users must register with the state. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have made medical marijuana legal, according to the procon.org website, although the two newest ones (Oklahoma and West Virginia) are still developing procedures.

The laws vary widely. Some states don’t allow patients to smoke medical marijuana, and some don’t allow visitors to use out-of-state registry ID cards. And certain states limit the use of medical marijuana to specific conditions. Medical marijuana use by patients with MS is specifically allowed in many states, including Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, and several others.

There’s another complexity: According to procon.org, 17 states have laws about the use of cannabidiol. In Georgia, for instance, the use of some cannabis oil is allowed for the treatment of MS and other conditions.

In the wake of the FDA ruling, Dr. Bowling spoke in an interview about cannabis, MS, and the questions that neurologists should be asking themselves.

Q: What are studies telling us about cannabis and MS?

A: There are lots of clinical studies – 19 randomized controlled trials. A consistent finding is that there’s benefit in terms of pain and people’s subjective sense of spasticity (Neurology. 2014 Apr 29;82(17):1556-63).

Q: During your CMSC presentation, you talked about how “fidelity” has been a problem in cannabis research. Could you elaborate on what you mean?

A: The products used in these studies are generally standardized, research-grade products that you can’t buy in any U.S. dispensary.

Cannabis is complex and contains more than 100 different potentially pharmacologically active molecules. You can’t conclude that if you see a product in clinical trials, you’ll then be able to walk into a dispensary for recreational or medical cannabis and get a product that produces the same effect.

Q: What have you seen in your own patient population in terms of cannabis use?

A: I find what’s been found with the studies: It helps with pain and people’s sense of muscle stiffness.

It’s especially helpful in people with pain and spasticity that breaks through in the late afternoon or at night when they’re trying to go to sleep. Just a little bit of cannabis can get them through those difficult times and improve their quality of life.

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