Marijuana Pill May Provide Longer Pain Relief Than A Joint
April 23, 2013

Marijuana Pill May Provide Longer Pain Relief Than A Joint

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Cannibas (marijuana) has been a commonly used form of medicine throughout the Western world since the late 19th century. It was used as a primary source of pain relief until the invention of aspirin in 1897. While cannibas never really left the medicinal world, more modern medicines through the years took center stage as more potent forms of pain relief.

However, medicinal marijuana began to come out of the woodwork again in the 1970s and 80s and soon people were looking to the drug once again for some relief from the pain. It would not be until the 1990s, however, when several states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) adopted laws allowing for the use of medicinal marijuana.

Despite federal laws prohibiting any use of the natural drug, be it medicinal or recreational, patients throughout these states began showing up at clinics to get their much-needed fix. Today, medical marijuana is available in 18 US states and the District of Columbia.

But new research is looking at a pill form of marijuana that could offer a better form of pain management. Most patients believe that toking up is the only truly effective way to fight their pain when it comes to marijuana. However, researchers from the Substance Abuse Research Center of the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have taken a closer look at a pill that could work just as well to relieve pain as the smoked form, but without, or with fewer, side effects.

The researchers say the pill form could likely offer longer relief from pain, yet also leave people without the high feeling that comes with smoking a joint. Pain is the most common reason doctors prescribe medical marijuana, according to surveys. Some studies have also shown that marijuana works as well as narcotic pain relievers like codeine, while others have shown that it can actually make pain worse.

For the NYSPI study, researchers offered 30 healthy, pain-free participants either a placebo or the drug (dronabinol), which contains the active marijuana ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Dronabinol has been FDA-approved since 1985 as a treatment for nausea and loss of appetite that comes with cancer and AIDS. But little else is known about the drug, especially its effect on pain.

During the experiment, participants were given a capsule and then 45 minutes later allowed to smoke a joint. The capsule was either the placebo, or a 10mg or 20mg dose of dronabinol. The marijuana cigarettes were specially made by the NIH's US National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the study. The cigarettes contained a low dosage of THC, a higher dosage, or none at all.

The study participants were never told what dosage they were smoking or which pill they ingested. And researchers made sure that none of the participants received a double hit of the drug during the same session.

During the sessions, participants were asked to place their hands in an icy tub of water kept just above freezing, which was used to measure pain. The researchers measured how long it took the subjects to feel pain and then how long they were able to tolerate the pain before removing their hand from the bath. The participants were then asked to answer questions about how intense the pain was during the experiments and also how high they felt.

Upon analysis of the data, the NYSPI team found that the joint form and the pill form of THC were equally effective at controlling pain.

After smoking the strongest cigarette and taking the highest dosage pill the subjects were able to keep their hands in the ice water 12 to 13 seconds longer before feeling pain compared to when they took just the placebos. And both forms of the drug increased pain tolerance significantly. The subjects also reported that their pain was decreased after they smoked either strength of marijuana cigarette and after they took the highest strength of pill.

According to US News Health Day reporter Brenda Goodman, the researchers found the most significant results with how long it took for the drug to work and how high people felt after using it. Pain relief peaked about 15 minutes after people smoked a joint, and then quickly wore off. The pills took almost four times longer to kick in, but pain relief lasted up to 4 hours. Those who also smoked the joint reported they felt much higher than using the pill, and also reported that the high lasted longer than the pain relief.

Ziva Cooper, an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University, said that the results indicate that someone would have to smoke several times per day to keep the pain away. That´s not feasible for most people. She noted that swallowing a pill could also be much safer than lighting up; as there has been some concern that smoking marijuana could lead to lung cancer.

But with safety aside, taking a pill could be more costly than reaching for a joint. According to, the average dose of two marijuana joints per day costs about $514 per month. The usual dose for dronabinol costs about $678 per month. Dronabinol is the generic form of the drug Marinol, which could cost significantly more. However, dronabinol is often covered by insurance, bringing the average cost for patients down to $15 to $30 per month.

The researchers said more research is needed to confirm their findings, which have been published in the April 22 issue of Neuropsychopharmacology. Because the study only included healthy subjects, it may be necessary to test the efficacy of dronabinol in individuals who suffer from chronic pain to see if they experience the same effect from the pill. Also, the study involved participants who were regular pot smokers on a daily basis, so it isn´t clear if the results would apply to people who do not consume it regularly.