[Editor’s Note: Those with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder, might find some relief through cannabis. The beginning of important research is described in this story.]
Every year, more than 200,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that causes stiffness, tremors, and affects both a person’s ability to speak and to walk.
Specifically, Parkinson’s is a degeneration of dopamine neurons in the brain. It’s a debilitating disease for which there is no one known cause (it could be genetic, it could be environmental) and for which there is no known cure, only treatment to manage symptoms.
Since this is a chronic disease we’re talking about and since this is 2019 — and since it appears that medical cannabis may have potential to treat other neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s — the natural question is, “Does cannabis do anything for Parkinson’s?”
And since this is 2019, when it remains exceedingly difficult to research cannabis’s efficacy in treating almost anything thanks to federal marijuana policy, the answer from researchers is a resounding, “We don’t know, but maybe!”
There’s enough of a chance for 80 percent of Parkinson’s patients to report trying cannabis to soothe symptoms (including with official approval from some states’ medical marijuana laws) which means there’s enough of an interest to draw attention from the Parkinson’s Foundation.
As Denver-based altweekly Westword reported, the 62-year old research foundation will host its first-ever medical marijuana conference in Denver on March 6 and 7.
In a way, this is a search for a new answer to a very old question. As cannabis researcher Ethan Russo noted in a recent literature review, researchers as earlier as 1888 observed possible benefits for Parkinson’s patients using cannabis — or, then, “Indian hemp.” Things haven’t advanced much since then.
“To date, there is more hype than actual data to provide meaningful clinical information to patients with PD,” said Dr. Benzi Kluger, an associate professor at University of Colorado Hospital medical school and a co-chair of the event, according to the newspaper. “There is a critical need to analyze existing data on medical marijuana and to set priorities for future research.”
But what data is out there? Here’s a brief review of published research on the topic.
According to results of a study published in the journal Clinical Neuropharmacology in 2014, 22 patients with Parkinson’s reported “significant improvement of sleep and pain scores” after smoking marijuana. More notably, “[n]o significant adverse effects of the drug were observed,” according to the researchers — who called for a larger study to verify the results.
But that study’s participants were observed back in 2011-2012. That wasn’t so long ago, but it was well before the public at large (and even most marijuana users) had the fluency around cannabinoid contents and terpenes that they do today. What about CBD-only treatments — or what kind of CBD-THC ratio?
A 2004 study found “no significant benefits” on 17 patients trying a THC:CBD oral extract. Yet two other studies found that CBD helped five Parkinson’s patients with psychosis and 21 more patients with general symptoms.
Possibly the largest recent study in recent years was a 339-person research effort in the Czech Republic, where patients received oral cannabis leaves. Here, the best results came in patients who took the treatment for “three or more months,” Russo wrote in his review.
Keep in mind that current treatments of Parkinson’s have adverse side effects including dyskinesia.
As with most medical questions involving cannabis there are currently more questions than answers on what Parkinson’s can do. More important than the potential there’s the fact that Parkinson’s patients are trying marijuana on their own.
As usual, medicine is waiting to catch up as soon as the law will let it start to try.