DENVER, CO – Therapeutic uses for medical marijuana are being explored by two new studies at University of Colorado Anschutz.

One study will research marijuana as a treatment for chronic spine pain and will evaluate its use to reduce prescription opioid use. The other will research whether cannabidiol (CBD) can be used treat children with autism spectrum disorder.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has awarded two three-year grants totaling $2.7 million for the studies, the department said.

The state already has funded $9 million in medical marijuana research grants and an additional $2.35 million in grants for seven marijuana public health research studies. Both of the current research studies are random controlled trials, the type of research considered to be the “gold standard” in the scientific community, the department said in a press release.

The categorization of marijuana as a Schedule 1 illegal drug on the federal level has limited the national funding for top-quality research on medical marijuana. The illegal status of marijuana on a national level also interferes with approval from federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and Food and Drug Administration.

In Colorado, a new round of medical marijuana research grants from the department’s Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program through 2023 was approved by the General Assembly.

CBD for autism disorders

Using medical marijuana for patients experiencing autism spectrum disorder was made a priority by an executive order from Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Dr. Nicole Tartaglia, associate professor of pediatrics, received $1.35 million for a three-year randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study for the treatment of irritability in autistic children and adolescents with cannabidiol (CBD), the health department said.

Cannabis vs. opioids

Substituting long-term opioid use for chronic pain with medical marijuana “has been an ongoing priority for the department, and important questions remain about whether marijuana can be an effective substitute for opioids,” the CDPHE said in a statement.

But patients seem to be choosing medical marijuana themselves in states where medical and recreational pot is legal. In a five-year study published this year the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine, among Medicaid patients, medical marijuana laws were associated with lower numbers of opioid prescriptions, which dropped by almost 6 percent.

The second Anschutz study, granted $1.3 million, will be undertaken by the Colorado Cannabis Research Consortium (C2RC). The three-year study will research will the substitution of medical marijuana for the management of chronic spine pain and the reduction of prescription opioid use. It will be led by Emily Lindley, in the department of orthopedics and Dr. Rachael Rzasa Lynn from the department of anesthesiology, a press release said.