UCLA Cannabis Research Center Director Talks Pain and the Future of Minor Cannabinoids

Cannabis is picking up steam, and the reasons are numerous: calls in for new studies, increased funding from cannabis sales taxes, and, inevitably, breakthroughs that beget further

On Thursday, Colorado State University Pueblo continued its Institute of Cannabis Research series with Ziva Cooper, the director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative (read Cannabis Wire’s previous coverage of CSU Pueblo’s series). Cooper gave a presentation called “Human studies probing cannabis constituents for pain relief: Looking beyond delta-9-THC,” which covered the basics of the cannabis plant and its cannabinoids, as well as Cooper’s specific areas of focus and the emerging research that has caught her attention. 

Given the rise in opioid-related deaths in the US, and that 30% of these incidents are due to prescription opioids, “there’s an urgent need to reduce prescription opiate reliance,” Cooper said. 

One area of Cooper’s study is at the intersection of cannabis and opioids, and whether their co-use increases intoxication. While researchers saw “significant intoxication”  with the oxycodone alone in newly prescribed participants, researchers did not observe that the oxycodone-cannabis combination “further increased intoxication.” 

“We saw that the cannabis and oxycodone combination produced the analgesia, but we did not see that this combination further enhanced the intoxicating effects of cannabis,” Cooper said. 

When it comes to cannabidiol, or CBD, another well-known cannabinoid from the cannabis plant, and pain, Cooper said that the data here are lacking, which is “surprising,” given how many people are already using CBD for pain. But, early studies are “promising,” she said, nodding to a recent study that showed that half of the participants who used CBD extracts reported that they were able to cut their opioid use. And, other literature suggests that CBD could decrease anxiety and craving in people with opioid use disorder. 

Cooper shared how the -state conflict on cannabis has posed challenges for researchers, especially those seeking to study cannabis use in humans. Broadly, Cooper said that the work that she and her team undertake is informed by preclinical trials, or animal studies. 

For her work, which focuses on cannabis and humans in an effort to better understand the therapeutic and adverse effects of cannabis, Cooper uses a controlled human laboratory. This requires cannabis consumers in a controlled environment with double-blind, placebo-controlled frameworks. 

“When you’re dealing with these chemicals that haven’t necessarily been really studied in humans so much, they are really tough. And in fact, I have this simple statement here: These studies are, in fact, a regulatory nightmare where you have to deal with a lot of regulatory agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the [Food and Drug Administration] and the [Institutional Review Board].” 

Cooper then turned to an area where research is limited, but consumer demand is growing: minor cannabinoids, like Cannabinol (CBN) and cannabigerol (CBG). While research is picking up on the cannabis plant, many of its cannabinoids that appear in lesser quantities are also less often explored. In Los Angeles, though, Cooper said she’s noticing “a lot of attention in the industry for some of these specific cannabinoids.”

“What do we know about these minor cannabinoids? It’s fairly limited and restricted to studies in animals, as well as what people are saying about them,” Cooper said. “What are the effects of these products? Are they safe? Are they therapeutic? And the truth is that even though they are available in many states, we actually don’t know how safe and how therapeutic they are because they haven’t yet been tested, really, in people.” 

CBG, for example, is of specific interest to Cooper and her team because animal studies suggest that CBG doesn’t have intoxicating effects like THC, and could help with pain, appetite, and depression.  

Cooper said that she and her team are also looking into specific terpenes, or the cannabis compounds that are responsible for the smell. Two terpenes in particular have caught Cooper’s team’s attention: beta caryophyllene and myrcene. 

Prior to joining UCLA to head its cannabis research efforts in 2019, Cooper was an author on the watershed 2017 National Academies of Sciences Committee on the Health Effects of Cannabis. This report was the focus of a highly publicized debate between Cooper and journalist Alex Berenson in early 2019, when Cooper took to Twitter to dispute his interpretation of the report’s findings. Cooper told Cannabis Wire at the time that Berenson’s view that the NASEM report found that “cannabis causes schizophrenia” is wrong, and in fact “a gross misinterpretation of our conclusions in the text. And to make that claim is quite dangerous and it’s misinformed.”

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