Connecticut’s growing medical marijuana industry is enlivening patients and medical researchers, both of which are part of ongoing studies that could change the way the state’s medical community addresses pain.
A year from now, Connecticut will learn if its first state-approved medical marijuana research program was a success, possibly opening the door to additional studies and applications as well as more attention from businesses and healthcare providers.
Hartford-based St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center is enrolling 60 people in a research project that was approved Dec. 16 by the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. Half of the group will be treated with marijuana and the others supplied with oxycodone to compare their effectiveness against pain from multiple rib fractures. Every participant will know what medication they are receiving, St. Francis spokeswoman Fiona Phelan said.
The Connecticut Hospital Association has not taken a position on medical marijuana or its exploration in research studies, said Elizabeth Hamilton, the association’s spokeswoman. St. Francis is a member of the Wallingford-based group, as are most of Connecticut’s larger acute-care facilities including Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Necessary data should be available as early as July with written summaries taking up to two months to produce, said Dr. James Feeney, St. Francis’ director of trauma services, who is leading the study. The results will likely be published in a medical journal in January 2018, he said.
The St. Francis study along with one at Connecticut Hospice Inc., which was approved three days later, both share the goal of using marijuana to attack the opioid crisis.
“There is an opportunity to lead the way,” said Feeney, addressing the opioid epidemic. “There is a chance that we could end it. That is the ultimate goal.”
Meanwhile, a program developed by Portland-based Connecticut Pharmaceuticals Solutions LLC is being considered for approval by the state Department of Consumer Protection, department spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson said.
The study aims to ease discomfort from chemotherapy used to treat cancer, said Tom Schultz, a part-owner of the company more commonly known as CT Pharmaceuticals. It’s an animal-based study of cachexia, which accompanies many serious diseases, he said.
CT Pharmaceuticals is working with Dr. Tamas Horvath of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven on the cachexia study and others involving the school, Schultz said.
The Yale School of Medicine held a symposium titled “Cannabis in Medicine” in November. The event, co-sponsored by CT Pharmaceuticals, was listed as an “approved course” in the school’s Comparative Medicine section.
Enthusiasm in Connecticut’s political circles is coming from Gov. Dannel Malloy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who honored Branford-based Connecticut Hospice with a visit on the day its marijuana program was approved.
The hospice is grateful for the endorsements, said Dave McQuade, spokesman for Hartford-based Murtha Cullina LLP, the law firm that represents the hospice.
The hospice’s program is the first federally approved medical marijuana research program in Connecticut. Its objectives include reducing opioid use in end-of-life care and improving pain management. Connecticut Hospice, established in 1974, was the nation’s first hospice institution. The federal approval means the hospice doesn’t need state approval, Anderson said.
“Anything that can relieve pain and suffering is something we want access to,” said Dr. Wen-Jen Hwu, who chairs the hospice’s professional advisory committee.
Lessening suffering includes reducing side effects from withdrawal, Feeney said. Marijuana withdrawal is much less severe than opioid withdrawal, he said.
“At the most severe, marijuana withdrawal involves a loss of appetite and some coffee headaches,” he said.
The initiatives are developing alongside the state’s medical marijuana program, also aimed at easing discomfort from what Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris calls “severe debilitating conditions.” The program, created through law in 2012 with the first deliveries beginning two years later, recently surpassed 15,000 patients, Anderson said.
Adult patients suffering from 22 conditions, including cancer and spinal cord injuries, are eligible to receive marijuana through licensed dispensaries. Six conditions qualify children to receive the drug. The list of eligible conditions may be expanded as the consumer protection department’s Board of Physicians held a public hearing this week. Following the Jan. 11 meeting, the board may recommend to the commissioner that more conditions be added, Anderson said.
Nearly 600 Connecticut doctors have joined the registry that makes them eligible to prescribe marijuana.
Three doctors were named to fill vacancies on the department’s Board of Physicians in September. One of them is Dr. William Zempsky, who is affiliated with the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. That appointment fulfilled a requirement related to the board’s consideration of marijuana for pediatric patients, according to a department press release.
Connecticut is one of 28 states that allows marijuana for medical use, although the substance is still classified as illegal under federal law.
Feeney does not support across-the-board legalization.
“Nobody is smoking in our study. I don’t want my kids walking the streets and seeing people smoking it. It should be used for what it works for,” he said.
While the number of research programs is expected to grow, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries is likely to remain at nine. The planned opening of a Milford dispensary will be the last unless the state decides to reopen the licensing process, Anderson said. Research programs were given an initial application deadline of Oct. 1, but are being considered on a rolling basis, she said.
The research programs have come about through Public Act 16-23, which was passed by the General Assembly last year. It allows Connecticut Department of Health-licensed medical facilities, state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and producers, and colleges and universities to apply for research licenses.