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Marijuana to Treat Pain: A Pill May Outlast a Puff

Study shows a pill containing THC lasts longer and may be safer than smoking pot

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Additionally, study participants reported that their pain was decreased after they smoked either strength of marijuana cigarette and after they took the highest strength of the dronabinol capsules.

The biggest differences between the puffs and the pills had to do with how long it took the drug to work and how high people felt after they used it.

Researchers found that pain relief peaked about 15 minutes after people smoked the marijuana and wore off relatively quickly. The pills took longer to work, but the pain relief lasted three to four hours.

Participants also reported feeling much higher after smoking the drug compared to when they swallowed it. The feeling of being high usually outlasted any pain relief.

"If you think about it, if you're someone who's dealing with chronic pain, you're going to have to be smoking several times a day, and for a lot of people that would not be feasible," said study author Ziva Cooper, an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University, in New York City.

Cooper also noted that swallowing a pill might be a safer way to take the drug than smoking it. There's some concern, though scant evidence, that smoking marijuana might increase the risk for lung cancer.

Dr. Gary Reisfield, an assistant professor of addiction medicine and chief of pain management services at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in Gainesville, praised the study for being "well-conceived and meticulously designed."

He said the research should help doctors and patients better understand how to use the drug.

"Smoked cannabis works faster, but oral THC works longer. For the management of chronic pain and other symptoms, the duration of action is often more important than the rapidity of onset. It is more convenient, and often more desirable, to administer a medication two or three times daily rather [than] every two or three hours," said Reisfield, who was not involved in the research.

When it comes to price, it costs somewhat more to swallow average doses of the drug than to smoke it, according to ProCon.org. At an average dose of two joints a day, it costs about $514 a month to smoke marijuana. The usual dose of dronabinol, which is the generic form of the drug Marinol, costs about $678 a month.

But dronabinol is often covered by insurance, so an insured patient would pay far less, between $15 and $30 each month for their prescription.

The study was published April 22 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

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