A newly released study from the University of New Mexico actually finds more therapeutic benefits to THC than its sexy sibling cannabinoid CBD. One catch: It’s based on data from a cell phone app.
Researchers at the University of New Mexico claim to have “solved a major gap in scientific literature” about the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids. How have they managed this grandiose-sounding feat? By employing new “mobile software technology to measure the real-time effects of actual cannabis-based products used by millions of people every day.”
The new study, titled “The Association Between Cannabis Product Characteristics and Symptom Relief,” was published Feb. 26 in the journal Scientific Reports, authored by UNM researchers Sarah See Stith, assistant professor in the Department of Economics, and Jacob Miguel Vigil, associate professor in the Psychology Department. They examined data from roughly 20,000 “user sessions” against 27 “symptom categories” ranging from depression to seizures.
The results showed an overall “immediate symptom improvement” of 3.5 points on a 0-10 scale. Dried flower was the most commonly used product and was generally associated with greater symptom improvement than other types of cannabis products.
How Do You Spell Relief? T-H-C.
By comparing results from products containing either THC or CBD, the authors were able to “analyze the relative importance of these cannabinoids for symptom relief and side effect prevalence.” One of the most “striking patterns” in the results is that THC was associated with “a more intense user experience,” which they measured through symptom relief and the prevalence of “both positive and negative side effects.”
The press release reports: “Contrary to popular media-reports and scientific dogma, the psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol or ‘THC,’ showed the strongest correlation with therapeutic relief and far less evidence for the benefits of relying on the more socially acceptable chemical, cannabidiol or ‘CBD.’”
Co-author Vigil elaborated: “Despite the conventional wisdom, both in the popular press and much of the scientific community that only CBD has medical benefits while THC merely makes one high, our results suggest that THC may be more important than CBD in generating therapeutic benefits. In our study, CBD appears to have little effect at all, while THC generates measurable improvements in symptom relief.”
He added: “These findings justify the immediate de-scheduling of all types of cannabis, in addition to hemp, so that cannabis with THC can be more widely accessible for pharmaceutical use by the general public.”
The Arrival of App-Based Cannabis Science?
The findings were based on what the study calls “the largest database of real-time measurements of the effects of cannabis in the United States,” collected with a commercially developed mobile phone application called ReleafApp. The app’s creators, Franco Brockelman, Keenan Keeling and Branden Hall, are actually listed as co-authors of the study.
Released in 2016, ReleafApp is designed to help patients track the products they’re using, the methods they are using to consuming those products and what results they feel.
A video on the ReleafApp website says the app “remembers how different types of cannabis made you feel, and which worked best to relieve symptoms.” Details on strains are pre-loaded by the app’s “partner dispensaries.” The user can set a “starting level” of symptom severity and record how use of the cannabis product produced an effect, with options for “relaxed,” “anxious,” “focused,” “reflective” and so on.
Getting Around the Federal Strictures
Reached for comment by Cannabis Now, Vigil said that using data from the app was “the most ideal means of capturing real-time effects of cannabis usage and identifying associations between products and their effects in naturalistic circumstances.”
“Cannabis research has been largely prohibited, and the funding for it hasn’t been available,” he said. “In the limited research that is permitted, you have to get cannabis from government entities that have an agenda that is anti-cannabis to begin with. So, we’re in a situation where cannabis is being used by millions daily despite the lack of formal information on its effects.”
Vigil also says that using data from the app allowed the researchers to get real-world information: “Experiments don’t tell us a lot about people not in the experiment, so they may not generalize to anybody. The types of cannabis provided by the government for these studies are not representative of the vast varieties of cannabis that patients are exposed to. This app provides a running electronic diary of cannabis use and its effects so people can have a record of what works for them.”
As for the study’s conclusions, Vigil summarizes: “CBD doesn’t seem to predict real-time effects in patients compared to THC, which was the sole independent characteristic that predictably produced effects on the outcomes we were measuring. CBD does seem to have a strong predictive potential, but by and large, across a variety of health conditions, THC is clearly driving the relief that people are reporting in real time.”
Vigil believes this is why “as people navigate through the cannabis experience, they tend to be drawn toward the flower that people have been using forever.”
Partially to get around strictures on federal expenditures for such studies, Vigil co-founded the UNM Medical Cannabis Research Fund as “a means for private donors to support our work.” He is quick to add that the costs for the new study were “really low” due to its reliance on the app. He also noted that ReleafApp is not among the contributors to the research fund.
Caveats Called For?
Reliance on a single app may raise eyebrows for some, and the press release reveals a perhaps too-eager glee in bursting the CBD bubble.
Use of the term “scientific dogma” may set off alarm bells. It can be seen as something of a contradiction in terms, as science is based on empiricism, not faith.
It also is questionable whether fidgeting with a cell phone during your cannabis self-medication may not itself alter the experience. The ReleafApp video suggests inputting “every time you take a puff, dose or application” of your cannabis product. Looking at a screen may be contributing to your anxiety — as opposed to looking at, say, the clouds overhead, or the interplay of shadow and sunshine on a grassy hill. Use of your cell phone may also be fueling addictive tendencies far more than your use of cannabis.
THC’s partisans were looking hopefully to the World Health Organization’s recently released recommendation on cannabis scheduling. But while the WHO called for descheduling CBD entirely, it recommended keeping THC in Schedule I. The stigma that attaches to the THC “high” appears to be very much alive, in spite of all the recent progress in cannabis normalization.
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