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State Approves St. Francis Hospital Research Into Marijuana As Alternative To Opioid Painkillers

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State Approves St. Francis Hospital Research Into Marijuana As Alternative To Opioid Painkillers

A first-of-its-kind research program by a St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center team to gauge the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a painkiller for traumatic injuries such as broken ribs has been approved by the state.

Hospital and state officials said Friday the program’s goal is to develop medical marijuana as a safer alternative to the highly addictive painkillers that have led to a deadly opioid epidemic in Connecticut and across the nation.

State Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris said this is the first research program of its kind in the U.S.

“Medical marijuana is nonaddictive, it’s almost impossible to overdose on it, and it has very mild side effects,” said Dr. James M. Feeney, director of trauma services at St. Francis and the head of the new research effort.

“If we can stop prescribing opiates [as painkillers]… we can stop the whole cycle of abuse,” Feeney said.

Dr. John F. Rodis, president of St. Francis Hospital, said the “opioid epidemic is devastating families and towns across the country. We need to find alternate methods to effectively and safely treat illnesses and diseases that can save lives and not ruin them.”

The U.S. Senate last week overwhelmingly approved $1 billion over two years to combat opioid abuse and addiction. Misuse of opioids such as codeine, oxycodone and hydrocodone has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in Connecticut in recent years and thousands in the U.S.

Legislation allowing research into potential new uses of medical cannabis was signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in May and took effect on Oct. 1.

The project proposed by St. Francis is the first to be approved by the Department of Consumer Protection under the new law.

The same legislation expanded the number of major diseases and conditions that qualify for medical marijuana treatment in Connecticut and also, for the first time, authorized the use of medical marijuana for people under age 18 for severe conditions such as terminal illness, cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy.

Harris said the state’s medical marijuana program has been a remarkable success and that nearly 600 physicians have registered for the ability to prescribe the drug and that more than 14,800 patients can now legally get and use medical marijuana.

The announcement of the state’s approval of the new research program came one day after recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts. Seven other states, from Oregon to Maine, have also legalized recreational pot.

The initial phase of the St. Francis research is expected to take about eight months and involve 60 patients with rib injuries. Patients who would normally be prescribed opiate painkillers for six to eight weeks will be chosen for the study. Feeney said heroin addicts and habitual marijuana users will be excluded from the program.

The $30,000 to $50,000 estimated cost of the initial research phase is being covered by the hospital and the doctors involved, according to Feeney. Additional research will be needed in the form of a randomized control trial that would involve about 310 patients, Feeney said, and that could take approximately 18 months.

Although this is the first research program of its type in the U.S., Feeney said similar studies have been done in other countries that indicate marijuana can be used as a substitute painkiller with success.

Neither Harris nor Feeney said they could predict how long it would take before medical cannabis could be in widespread use as a substitute for traditional opiate painkillers. According to Feeney, both national and state laws would need to be reformed before that could happen.

Feeney said the results of the St. Francis study could be used to support such reforms.

Harris pointed to the 25 states that have medical marijuana programs as evidence that “reflects a change in people’s attitudes” about the drug.

Connecticut authorizes patients suffering from 22 serious medical conditions to qualify for medical marijuana prescriptions. The new law that took effect in October lists six major conditions that would allow marijuana to be prescribed for people under age 18.

Feeney and Rodis said research into expanding the use of cannabis as a medical painkiller is long overdue.

“Unfortunately, we are the first state to allow research into medical marijuana,” Feeney said. Rodis agreed, saying, “It’s kind of sad that it’s so late in coming.”

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