A researcher at UCLA has received a $3.9 million federal grant to study whether cannabis can be used to replace opioids for pain management.

Ziva Cooper, research director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, will receive the funding over the next five years. The grant comes from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggesting that the US federal government is taking medical marijuana seriously.

Just five months ago, NIH awarded Cooper a $3.5 million grant to assess the pain-relieving effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. That will go towards the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative’s first ever clinical study, after the department was founded in 2017.

She has now received $7.4 million from the federal government to conduct studies into the potential for cannabis to relieve pain. Reducing the nation’s dependence on opioids is a public health priority, and cannabis has shown strong potential as a replacement therapy.

For the new study, Cooper and her team will study whether the terpenes and THC found in cannabis can reduce the amount of opioid medication a person needs to reduce pain. They will look into the ways in which terpenes and THC interact with one another.

They believe terpenes, which contribute to the taste and smell of marijuana, can negate the negative effects of THC, leaving a product with high medicinal value and minimal side effects. Cooper said this is an urgent area of research that is desperately needed in America.

“Chronic pain is a significant public health burden and there are few effective treatments that lack the adverse effects that limit use,” added Cooper.

Her team will examine two terpenes, myrcene and ß-caryophyllene, which will be used in isolation and in conjunction with THC. The potential of these terpenes to reduce opioid doses needed to decrease pain will also be tested.

Cannabis research is still in its infancy due to the plant’s illegal status until recent times. Researchers are now starting to isolate individual cannabinoids on a regular basis and then investigate their potential to treat a range of conditions.

Earlier this month, Canadian researchers revealed that a cannabinoid called cannabigerol could save thousands of lives by destroying the feared MRSA superbug.

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