Medical Marijuana and IBD: Is the treatment right for you?

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional
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Medical marijuana is all over the news lately, with its benefits in diseases like epilepsy, chronic pain, and even anxiety being touted. As of November 2016, the state of Arkansas, where I currently live, was added to the list of states that allow for the medical use of marijuana. In fact, more than half of the states — 28 to be exact— have legalized marijuana for certain medical conditions.

Marijuana use in IBD

Multiple studies have documented the use of marijuana in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)— legally and illegally. A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology showed that many patients are already using the drug to relieve side effects of IBD with some success. However, a more recent study published in 2014 in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that while the drug did relieve pain and diarrheal symptoms, it was also associated with an increased risk of surgery in patients with Crohn's disease. This may be due to the fact that the drug was most frequently smoked in this study. Further research is needed to determine ways to reap the benefit of the drug without additional side effects and to establish good clinical dosage guidelines. Multiple clinical studies are currently in the works on this subject.

Vitality Biopharma’s drug formulation studies

Development of “cannaboside prodrugs” for the treatment of IBD is being tackled by Vitality Biopharma. In a recent press release, the company discussed changes made to the internal drug formulation allowing for different delivery mechanisms of the beneficial part of marijuana without the unwanted side effects. The company’s new, more water-soluble formula may allow for the delivery of the drug through rectal or intravenous means — getting the benefits directly to the damaged tissue in IBD patients. Depending on the results of current clinical studies, the addition of this type of product has the potential to improve the quality of life for many patients.

Cost of medical marijuana

The cost of medical marijuana varies depending on the state, whether you are allowed to grow your own, what type of cannabis is used (oils, buds, edibles, etc.), and the dosage. The Medical Marijuana Association estimates the average cost at $15 per gram (but it can be up to $60 per gram) — this leaves some cancer patients spending upward of $1,000 every month.

What about those with health insurance? Right now, most insurance companies are holding their ground and refusing to cover medical marijuana. Health insurance companies argue that they are caught between state laws that allow the use of medical marijuana and federal law that still classifies marijuana use as a crime — no matter what it’s being used for. Unfortunately, this leaves patients as the ones holding the bag. Medical marijuana’s estimated revenue from taxes on the product could reach $8 billion by 2020. Of course, with added taxes being considered by several states, the patient cost will only increase.

As you can see, the verdict is still out on the use of medical marijuana for IBD. If you are using marijuana to treat your symptoms, it is important to discuss the risks and benefits with your physician. Your doctor has the entire picture of your health, including other medications you are taking, and can help you to make the best choice for your long-term disease process.

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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma, and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).