I took in a CME course on Medical Cannabis: Clinical Applications and Evidence for Health Professionals on April 28, 2016 8 AM - 5 PM. It was done as a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing and The Minnesota Department of Health Office of Medical Cannabis. Minnesota was the 22nd state to legislate a version of medical cannabis and this conference showcased the Minnesota version, the state and federal regulatory landscape, the available evidence to support the use of cannabis in certain conditions. The politics of medical cannabis was also on display with viewpoints by some of the experts on the panel that represented scientific data, but also complementary approaches that had very little to do with science.
The Minnesota approach is an interesting one, because it may prove to provide the only cannabis products that offer a relatively standardized dose of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) or some combination. In Minnesota there are two companies that are the exclusive providers of non-smokable cannabis products that are extracted from the entire plant - Leafline Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions. The extraction process is entirely carbon dioxide based and no hydrocarbons are used. There are strict quality control measures. There are no smokable or combustible cannabis products in the state. According the statute, medical cannabis is available only as "oil, pill, vapor (oil or liquid but not dried leaves or plant form) or any other form approved by the commissioner excluding smoking". These two companies supply state operated pharmacies that dispense only the cannabis products. In order for a person to access these products they need to register with the state, pay a $200 annual fee, be certified as having an eligible condition by a physician who recommends rather than prescribes the product. The patient discusses the actual product to be used with the pharmacist and pays for the product. There are no insurance companies or state programs that pay for the cannabis.
The speakers at this venue were highly qualified. Donald Abrams, MD is an adult oncologist with 32 years experience. He gave lectures on "Medical Cannabis and the Endocannabinoid System" and "Clinical Applications of Cannabis: Cancer Care." Both were highly informative. He is one of the few people to access cannabis that is grown by NIDA (National Institute of Drug Abuse) and go through the regulatory maze that allows researchers to use it in clinical trials. He discussed a concept that I had never heard of before called the entourage effect. The entourage effect was defined as the benefits of using the whole cannabis plant rather than the more specific compounds. The theory is that there are compounds in the broad mix that enhance the overall effect of the more active ingredients by both pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic effects. He described this as one of the principles of Chinese medicine, which of course is not the allopathic medicine that we all practice in the US. He emphasized the benefits of delivery as smoke or vapor rather than oral forms largely due to rapid onset of action and more rapid adjustment of the dose compared with oral forms. He presented data to show that a particular volcano style vaporizer can consistently deliver therapeutic amounts of cannabis to the patient. Once that was determined, that was the recommended delivery system for his patients.
Michael Bostwick, MD a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist gave two excellent presentations on "Medical Cannabis: Barriers, Myths, and Evidence" and "Medical Cannabis Statutes and the Role of the Federal Government". One of the biases discussed by Dr. Bostwick in the seminar was the common observation that advocates see cannabis as a cure for everything when there is scant data that it is useful for the indicated conditions. Of course that bias may also reflect the mixed agenda of recreational cannabis advocates seeking to legitimize cannabis as medicine and open the door for eventual widespread legalization. In that endeavor, science would be an expected casualty. The other bias was hysteria over the adverse medical and societal effects of cannabis use and how at least some of those attitudes may have resulted from racist attitudes in the 1950s. Images from Reefer Madness were shown, as being emblematic of the spirit of the times. That exercise does have a much different meaning today. A good portion of the audience was all seeing and all knowing - eager to laugh at the ignorance of this archaic movie and applaud any speaker who advocated for the removal of all barriers to medical (and non-medical) cannabis use. The problem is that I was sitting in an audience watching Reefer Madness in 1973 who were acting the same way. The bottom line is that, these biases have clear effects on legislation and that led to cannabis going from being listed on the US Pharmacopeia for a hundred years to Schedule I on the DEA list of Controlled Substances. A countervailing fact is that cannabis has been around for 5,000 years and has no clear medical indication. That was mentioned as a historical fact, but not as a potential rationale for the Schedule I listing. There was plenty of optimism that the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and getting cannabis off the most restrictive controlled substance category would lead to a whole new era of useful medicinal compounds.
Dr. Bostwick's discussion of the regulatory landscape of cannabis was superb. I teach this subject myself and he was somehow aware of two more memos from the Justice Department than I was on the practical aspects of enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in the context of increasing legalization at the state level. He described this as the states "going rogue" which I thought was humorous. He also carefully laid out the FDA regulatory process and how it is not really set up the approval of botanicals or researchers interested in using cannabis for research purposes.
Ilo Leppik, MD is a long time neurologist and epileptologist in the Twin Cities. Thirty three years ago when I was an intern on one of the neurology services in town and he was an attending physician. At about that time, he noticed some basic science research about CBD having potential anticonvulsant properties. He tried unsuccessfully to get pharmaceutical companies interested in this compound for years. He discussed the currently available research and the single company that is trying to get FDA approval for a cannabis derived approach to treating seizures. He is also an advocate for getting all of his neurological colleagues involved as registered certifiers of medical cannabis. Epileptologists treat refractory seizure disorders that do not adequately respond to other measures and in this population Dr. Leppik would use medical cannabis and he presented the supporting data.
The well known publicized case of the pediatric patient with seizures was discussed by Dr. Leppik. This case is frequently cited by pro-cannabis advocates as proof that cannabis is a legitimate medication that needs broader use. He pointed out that this patient not only did not have the seizure disorder that he was purported to have (Dravet Syndrome) but that he also had not seen the top epileptologist in the state where he resided. He went on to present a case from his own practice where childhood epilepsy was misdiagnosed. He made the correct diagnosis, but at that point, the patient's mother insisted that he stay on CBD along with the correct anticonvulsant for the condition. The patient eventually ran out of the CBD, but the seizures remained in remission because he had been put on the correct standard anticonvulsant for the correct diagnosis - in this case valproate.
Angela Birnbaum, PhD is a pharmacologist and presented the most science of the day. Straightforward pharmacokinetic principles and how they apply to treating patients with epilepsy. Her approach also highlighted the advantages of using the Minnesota approach to medical cannabis and being the only way to assure steady levels of the drug necessary to treat epilepsy. Dr. Birnbaum also presented a graphic similar to the one below on the product types available from the Minnesota companies. More detailed information is available at the company web sites shown above.
Susan Sencer, MD presented medical cannabis from the perspective of a pediatric oncologist. With the relatively new medical cannabis laws in Minnesota, her pediatric hospital has certified its use in 19 pediatric patients all with cancer diagnoses.
To a guy who has been an acute care psychiatrist and an addiction psychiatrist all of his working life, there were clearly some biases operating at this conference that very few people seemed to be aware of. Cannabis was discussed as a nearly benign product. Sure we know the endocannabinoid system has something to do with brain development, and sure it could lead to psychosis and early onset of psychosis but probably only in people who were predisposed to psychosis. There were remarks that none of the panelists who recommended medical cannabis and followed adult patients on that cannabis had ever seen any of them develop an acute psychosis. There were jokes made about the implausibility of amotivational syndrome. In the opinion of the panelists side effects were generally benign, even though data was presented from clinical trials suggesting otherwise. As I looked at the clinicians represented on the panel who treated patients with cannabis there were two oncologists, a neurologist, and a psychiatrist who specialized in treating chronic pain. Only the psychiatrist talked about treating some people with psychotic disorders and at one point there was a slide that suggested chronic psychotic disorders might be a contraindication to the use of cannabis. The data presented and the description of the practices suggested to me that there was a strong selection bias present. The panelists were not seeing psychiatric complications or problems with addictions because they weren't treating anyone with psychiatric disorders or addictions. Guys like me see those patients and the last thing we want to see is somebody giving our patients cannabis. I think that it will be a much different story if the list of eligible conditions is expanded to include insomnia, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder like it is in some states and the list of medical personnel authorized to certify the use of medical cannabis expands. Just expanding the indication to chronic pain will bring in a patient population that is probably distinctly different from the patient base that the panelists are treating.
As I have written on this blog many times before, I don't like the idea of medical cannabis for the exact same reason that one of the panelists mentioned - it always has been a political manipulation for the legalization of recreational marijuana. If you want to advocate for the legalization of recreational marijuana that is fine with me, but don't drag physicians into it and pretend it is an allopathic medicine. That reference came out at the conference many times when it was referred to as a "botanical" and therefore very awkward in the FDA regulatory scheme. At the same time, I have no problem with oncologists or neurologists telling their patients to use it. But I am not going to pretend that there is not significant psychiatric morbidity that extends far beyond activating psychosis in those who are predisposed. And I imagine that many of my colleagues will find this out when they discover that some of their patients now have cannabis added to their list of medications and that many of the panelists will discover this if they start seeing significant numbers of patients with psychiatric problems and addictions.
Despite all of the politics and bias - there is some underlying science that supports medical cannabis and Minnesota has the most rational approach toward implementing it. Addiction and the psychiatric side effects of these compounds will always be a limiting factor for some. In that case - as in the case of every other addicting medication - the best solution is to avoid it and try something else.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
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14: Health Canada web page consumer information on cannabis.
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24: Volkow ND, Baler RD, Compton WM, Weiss SRB. Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use. N Engl J Med 2014; 370:2219-2227, June 5, 2014; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1402309
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Supplementary 1: At this time (Saturday afternoon) - I am still waiting for the link to all of the presentations. I do plan to add some detailed information at that point - the above information was only what I can recall from direct observation. As soon as I have those links I will be able to list the actual medical cannabis products in Minnesota. They are not available on the Medical Cannabis web site or one the sites of either of the manufacturers. Stay tuned for a graphic containing all of that information.
Supplementary 2: One of the jokes about addiction specialists at the conference was that they were like "orthopedic surgeons at the bottom of a ski hill." The obvious implication is that they only see the train wrecks. The other implication is that non-addiction specialists can prescribe addictive drugs with with no concerns about addiction and they will usually be OK - that is most people will make it safely to the bottom of the ski hill. Of course by that time they had already presented data that "only" 9% of people who use cannabis get addicted to it, they are almost all young, and the panelists general impressions that their patients did not have a problem with addiction. There has never been any disagreement that in terminally ill patients - addiction is not a concern. Chronic pain patients without a terminal illness have a much different problem. The ethical problem to me is that there may be an obligation to make sure that the skiers can negotiate the hill before you sell them the ticket. There is also a recent precedent for declaring that prescribing practices were too conservative based on addiction risk. That happened right before the current prescription opioid epidemic based on seriously flawed studies of addiction.
Supplementary 3: If you want the best single reference on this subject - go to the Health Canada monograph (reference 15 above). Read the currently available document and wait for the 2016 update. It is a free download.
Supplementary 4: Marijuana and Cannabinoids - an NIH sponsored neuroscience summit; March 22-23, 2016. Link to the archived video recordings.