Aleafia Health Inc’s (TSX:ALEF) Canabo Medical Clinic reports medical cannabis therapy helped patients quit or reduce their usage of Benzodiazepine, a class of addictive and often fatal anti-anxiety drug
Vasudha Sharma | February 6, 2019 | SmallCapPower: In a breakthrough study led by Aleafia Health Inc. (TSX:ALEF), patients on Benzodiazepine medication were able to cut down or completely quit their use of the psychoactive drug with the help of medical cannabis.
Benzodiazepine is a prescription sedative, with trade names like Valium, Xanax, Ativan among others. They are prescribed by doctors to treat acute anxiety, insomnia and, seizures. But in the long term benzos, as they are commonly called, are addictive and run the risk of a fatal overdose. When benzos are discontinued, they cause severe withdrawal symptoms, both on the mind and body.
Cannabis relief for benzodiazepine users
This study reveals that out of 146 patients who were put on medical cannabis treatment, over 45% left their pre-existing benzodiazepine therapy. The research findings show a steady rate of discontinuation of benzos over an average of six months because of medical cannabis therapy. These patients also reported a decrease in the physical and mental distress symptoms that are typical of benzodiazepine addiction.
“That’s almost one in two patients coming in on a prescription Xanax or Clonazepam or Ativan and completely stopping that after six months of the use of cannabis,” notes Dr. Michael Verbora, Chief Medical Officer at Aleafia Health.
|Reduction of benzodiazepine use in patients prescribed medical cannabis
A retrospective study of 146 patients at Aleafia Health’s Canabo Medical Clinics
Dr. Verbora explains the science behind these findings. “What’s nice about cannabis is that it does not have the same receptors in the brainstem that opioids and benzodiazepines have. And that’s really the difference between what I would call a dirty drug and a clean drug. If a drug is operating on the brainstem that has the chance to suppress your respiratory drive, that’s how you get an overdose. You can take high doses of medical cannabis and you should never have suppression of your ability to breathe. And so, it makes it a much safer option compared to opioids or benzodiazepines,” he says.
Why study benzodiazepines when opioids dominate headlines?
These findings are part of an observational study performed on the extensive patient database of Canabo Medical Clinic, a Canada-wide chain of referral-only cannabis clinics operated by Aleafia Health. Canabo has treated over 50,000 patients and claims to have one of the largest medical cannabis datasets in the world, running into 10 million data points. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the medical exploration of cannabis, published this study.
Dr. Verbora explains the genesis of the study. “We strongly feel that in addition to an opioid crisis in North America, the next biggest medical issue is the benzodiazepine dependence and addiction crisis. That contributes to a lot of morbidity and mortality just like the opioid crisis. But it doesn’t get the same attention because of the devastating effects of opioids. We decided that given we were recognizing patterns in our clinics, we would put together a study and investigate what type of effect cannabis has on benzodiazepine use.”
Leveraging patient data to inspire product research and development
Aleafia Health’s 10 million point medical cannabis dataset was built by tracking all patient interactions with referring doctors, nurse practitioners and educators, right from the moment of diagnosis to treatment, monitoring, and continuous learning. Aleafia’s highly-differentiated patient data is powered by Amazon AWS, with market-leading data visualization and business insight tools driven by Google Data Studio.
Outcomes of this benzodiazepine study will help Aleafia further their research and development into the commercial applications of medical cannabis. Their aim is to develop evidence-based, proprietary treatment methods and products for chronic illnesses including pain, insomnia, anxiety and eating disorders. The Company has also recently given their research division a boost by appointing Dr. Graham Merry, their first Product Data Science Fellow.
“Aleafia Health continues to accelerate our purpose of helping people live better lives through a unique, scalable cannabis patient experience. We will enable patients to navigate seamlessly through cannabis education, illness specific questionnaires, medical cannabis script product purchasing, order subscription management and treatment/titration monitoring,” according to Geoffrey Benic, CEO at Aleafia Health. “The research we do now will be the backbone of that patient experience moving forward,” he adds.
Prescription pain killers: A public health emergency?
Health Canada describes Benzodiazepines as depressant drugs that slow down brain activity and breathing. They warn that problematic use of benzodiazepines can lead to death. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also declared that benzodiazepines are often involved in prescription opioid deaths. Opioids are a class of painkillers that are addictive. Users develop a high tolerance to them over time. That’s when they seek out more prescription sedatives like a benzodiazepine. But these two amplify each other’s effects, causing death by overdose. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has in fact declared prescription drugs as a ‘significant public health and safety concern’.
Dr. Verbora agrees, “The number of prescriptions for benzodiazepines has risen dramatically even though the drugs are not benign by any means. They’re associated with worsening mental health and dementia. The longer you stay on them, the more likely they are to stop working. But it’s taking a long time to get patients off these drugs.”
Breaking stigma with scientific evidence
The team at Aleafia Health and Canabo feel these research findings will help break the social stigma around medical cannabis and lead the march towards more in-depth scientific inquiry into its therapeutic effects. But first they are calling out for a cultural change within the medical community towards prescription drugs.
“Opioids and benzodiazepines are very effective drugs but they’re almost too effective. They work very fast and they really reward the brain. We’ve learned over time that the more you reward the brain with such drugs, the more your brain undergoes a biochemical change. And a lot of the research now coming out shows that something like opioids is no better than something like Advil or Tylenol in terms of pain management. And despite that research being out there there’s still a substantial number of people prescribing opioids for conditions that have zero evidence, says Dr. Verbora.
The team of physicians at Canabo is now working on measuring the positive effects of medical cannabis to help get the medical community on board with understanding how it works and to what extent.
“The number one reason patients use cannabis is for insomnia and for anxiety. This is a little paradoxical because the medical community feels that cannabis worsens anxiety. But it has to do with the dose that patients are taking. So, this study puts the research out there and validates some of the use patterns that patients are engaging in with cannabis. Physicians are very skeptical of prescribing cannabis until there’s a certain level of research out there. And this just starts to open-up opportunities for further research to better understand how cannabis is improving stress or anxiety or insomnia because patients are reporting their benefits,” states Dr. Verbora.
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