In a position paper issued Sept. 29, The Arthritis Society calls for more research into the efficacy and safety associated with the use of medical cannabis as a therapy to alleviate symptoms of pain and fatigue caused by a chronic disease.
“More and more Canadians are accessing medical cannabis as a treatment option for severe arthritis symptoms,” explains Society president and CEO Janet Yale. “We have a duty to the people we serve to ensure that the scientific basis for the use of medical cannabis is clear and appropriate, with patient safety and improved care our foremost priorities.”
Thousands of Canadians have already received authorization from Health Canada to use medical cannabis and as many as two thirds of those people are using the drug to help manage pain due to arthritis. There is much still unknown about the treatment therapy, its safety and its efficacy for coping with arthritis—leading to potential risks for patients.
“When you live with chronic pain, you’re desperate for any option that offers some relief,” explains Mary Ryan, 46, who lives with ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory form of arthritis that affects the joints in the spine. Ryan has been taking medical cannabis through the Canadian government’s access program since early 2014. “Medical cannabis has made it possible for me to get through the day despite my arthritis pain. I do worry that there’s a lot we don’t know about it, including its possible risks and benefits.”
The Arthritis Society is calling for more research on medical cannabis so that Canadians living with arthritis can make informed choices about their treatment options and physicians are equipped with the evidence-based information to make informed treatment recommendations for their patients.
“We firmly believe it’s the responsibility of all stakeholders in the arthritis community—government, licensed producers, health charities and other organizations—to fund research to determine whether medical cannabis is safe and effective,” says Yale.
Some of the questions that need to be answered through scientific inquiry include:
- Is medical cannabis effective for managing pain and fatigue caused by arthritis?
- If effective, what is the best delivery method?
- What factors affect dosage, delivery mode and efficacy? Do they vary depending on the patient, disease type, or amount of pain being experienced?
- Does medical cannabis have any adverse interactions with other medications or conditions?
- Is it possible to separate the cannabinoid molecules that contribute to pain relief from those that have undesirable side effects?
“For a subject that’s drawing so much public attention, both in Canada and around the world, the paucity of quality scientific research into cannabis is concerning,” explains Dr. Jason McDougall, professor of pharmacology and anaesthesia at the University of Dalhousie, and chair of the scientific advisory committee of The Arthritis Society. “Given the number of people taking cannabis now, or who are thinking about taking it, the need for evidence-based research into efficacy and safety could not be more pressing.”
The Society is committing to fund medical cannabis research in the coming funding year to understand its impact on arthritis pain and disease management. The Society will also work to convene a national consensus conference of relevant stakeholders with the goal of developing a shared plan of action to advance research into medical cannabis.