UK’s new Cannabis Center funds four research studies; two will look at marijuana use by pregnant women and cancer patients

By Lindsay Travis
University of Kentucky

Kentucky’s recently established center for cannabis research has awarded its first set of faculty pilot grants to support innovative and collaborative cannabis research.

The University of Kentucky Cannabis Center conducts research on the health effects of cannabis, including its risks and benefits when used to treat certain medical conditions. The state leguislature established it just over a year ago, and gave it $2 million through June 2024.

The researchers are in the College of NursingCollege of Public HealthCollege of Pharmacy and the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration. Awards of $75,000 to $100,000 will fund studies for 14 months.

“We are excited for this opportunity to expand and accelerate cannabis science at UK and conduct studies focused on the public health impacts of cannabis that can directly affect the lives of Kentuckians,” said Shanna Babalonis, Ph.D., director of the Cannabis Center. “We have talented and dedicated researchers across a range of disciplines right here on campus who can contribute meaningful science to the center from multiple perspectives.”

The research will help educate medical providers, legislators and citizens on the risks and benefits of the use of cannabis and cannabinoids as Kentucky implements new medical marijuana legislation. Here are details on the projects:

Perinatal Cannabis: Perceptions, Use Patterns and Policy Implications: Kristin Ashford, associate dean of undergraduate programs and policy, the Good Samaritan Endowed Chair for Community Nursing, and director of the Perinatal Research and Wellness Center, will examine cannabis use during pregnancy.

As cannabis use increases, it places mothers and fetuses at risk for complications as well as long-term developmental harm for infants. Ashford will study the perceptions of safety and acceptability for cannabis use among pregnant women over the last five years in Central Kentucky.

“We want to know what pregnant women think, feel and do when it comes to using cannabis, in order to give our legislators, health care providers and expectant mothers a better understanding of how to improve the health of women and children in Kentucky,” said Ashford.

Population-based Survey of Cannabis Use among Cancer Patients in Kentucky: Jay Christian, an associate professor in the public-health college’s Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, will explore cannabis use among Kentucky cancer patients and survivors.

Through a survey of users, Christian aims to better understand the prevalence of cannabis use, which methods patients are using (smoking, vaping, eating), and how they are obtaining it. His research team is also interested in learning which symptoms patients are treating with cannabis and how effective they find it.

“Cannabis laws around the country, including in Kentucky, are changing rapidly,” said Christian. “To determine the effect of legal medical cannabis, it’s important to know how people have been using it both before and after the law changes. This study is a first step in helping us to assess the effects of Kentucky’s new medical cannabis law on cancer patients and survivors.”

Christian is teaming up with researchers at the Patient-Oriented and Population Sciences Shared Resource Facility at the UK Markey Cancer CenterUK Radiation Oncology and the departments of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences for the project, along with experts at the Kentucky Cancer Registry.

Impact of Cannabis Laws on Opioid and Benzodiazepine Prescriptions and Associated Health Outcomes in Older Adults: “Cannabis use among older adults is increasing at a faster pace due to the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis by various states, and there is suggested evidence of substitutional effects of cannabis for the treatment of chronic pain and anxiety,” said Jayani Jayawardhana, an associate professor in the public-health college’s Department of Health Management and Policy.

Opioids and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed medications for chronic pain, anxiety and sleep disorders, which are more prevalent among older adults.

Jayawardhana’s study will ultimately help inform the varying effects of different types of cannabis laws on the effectiveness in reducing those specific prescriptions and associated adverse health outcomes, like opioid use disorder or benzodiazepine use disorder.

Her team of researchers in the College of Pharmacy will also track various demographic characteristics to understand who is preferentially affected by different types of cannabis laws.

The Evolution of Cannabis Consumption: Evidence from Traffic Fatalities: Caroline Weber, an associate professor in the Martin School, will study the changes in cannabis use by examining traffic-fatality records.

“The rapid expansion of recreational cannabis access in the U.S. has drastically increased legal recreational cannabis consumption,” said Weber. “However, increased legal consumption likely coincides with a decrease in black-market and medical cannabis; hence, it’s theoretically ambiguous how much overall cannabis consumption has changed.”

Weber will construct a proxy for cannabis consumption using blood-THC tests in traffic-fatality records and compare this measure with existing usage measures. Her team will then use their new proxy to more precisely estimate consumption changes in response to recreational and medical cannabis legalization.
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