Results from medical cannabis trials in Georgia show early promise

Georgia-based clinical trials have shown early promise in using cannabis oil to treat epileptic seizures, although researchers said they won’t know for sure until at least the end of next year what strides they have made in the study of medical marijuana.

The update came Wednesday during the latest meeting of the state’s Commission on Medical Cannabis, formed earlier this year to study the effect of Georgia’s new medical marijuana law and whether it should be expanded to allow growers to harvest and distribute cannabis oil in-state.

Dr. Yong Park, a neurologist leading the trials through Georgia Regents University’s Medical College of Georgia, said as of April, seizures caused by one of the most severe forms of epilepsy — Dravet syndrome — fell by as much as 60 percent in children who had used a specific drug, the cannabis-derived oil Epidiolex, for at least 12 weeks.

Seizures were also down among patients with other forms of epilepsy, Park said, while 9 percent of all patients were seizure-free. The trials officially began enrolling children late last year and updated data will be available by December, he said.

Gov. Nathan Deal backed the use of clinical trials in Georgia last year to study cannabis oil’s effect on children suffering from seizure disorders, and lawmakers earlier this year passed a landmark law allowing the use of a limited form of cannabis oil to treat severe forms of eight illnesses including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

Almost 250 families have since qualified for the state’s new medical marijuana registry, allowing them to use the oil in treatment.

Park cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the oil’s effectiveness, saying research over the years has also shown THC — the high-inducing chemical associated with recreational marijuana use — to have a harmful effect on the development of the human brain and other ill side effects.

Dr. Cynthia Wetmore, however, forcefully challenged her colleague, saying it was difficult to say cannabidiol was bad for the nervous system. Wetmore, whose work at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta often focuses on children with brain tumors, said there is evidence both for and against its effectiveness. Many previous studies, she said, were not done on humans. There was also a difference in whether researchers used pharmaceutical-grade or natural oils.

Some dosage and compounds within the drug have been used for decades in Europe, she said. Researchers there have found encouraging effects including pain control, pre-clinical evidence of anti-tumor activity and some evidence it could improve traditional chemotherapy.

The testimony came as the commission continues its work, with recommendations due by Dec. 31.

Georgia’s new law only allows families to possess cannabis oil, making no attempt to address the oil’s manufacture or how to buy or obtain it —an important point given that the sale of any form of marijuana is and remains a violation of state and federal law, as does transporting it across state lines. The law also only allows the use of oil that contains no more than 5 percent THC.

A number of parents and advocates have said they remain stymied over how to access the oil, and they are encouraging the commission to develop guidelines related to cultivation and production in Georgia.

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