If you want to get the benefits from marijuana without the negative effects of smoking there may be a new technology for you, called a cannabis patch. There are many hurdles to cannabis being accepted by the scientific community as a treatment for diseases. This includes issues of strength, purity, dosage, administration route, contamination, and other related factors. In order to develop the industry as a true medicine, there must be standardization and safeguards to ensure proper dosages, which is impossible when it comes to smoking cannabis. As such, researchers are attempting to develop new methods of administering THC and other cannabinoids, one of which is the use of transdermal patches. The prospect of such a device yields promising consequences for medical marijuana patients, allowing for a constant and long-term release of cannabinoids into the body in which dosage can be calculated and monitored, and the risks associated with smoking or contamination of the product is minimized. However, although in theory, it is possible, in practice it has been much more difficult to achieve, due to the low permeability of the cannabinoids through the skin because of their polarity and large molecular size. A review published in 2001 looked at the method but had little hopes of it working, however in recent years many of the variables have been worked out, and today transdermal cannabis patches are being sold on the market, and are helping people with a wide range of conditions, including pain. In this article, we will explore the cannabis patch and the science behind its use.

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Do Cannabis Patches Work?

cannabis patch iStock / pixinoo
Unfortunately, most of the patches on the market today have not been independently studied through randomized clinical trials. However, the manufacturers have conducted their own studies and published them within the patent application. Their studies did show a high amount of success. In one placebo-controlled study of 20 participants, after 10 minutes of wearing a Sativa-patch, 2 volunteers reported energetic effects, which rose to 8 out of 10 participants at 30 minutes. For those volunteers who did experience effects, the duration was 4-12 hours and remained quite consistent throughout. In another study, CBN-patches were used to test the effects on patients with a long history of insomnia. After wearing the patch, 9 out of the 10 participants reported at least a 25% improvement in sleep quality and duration. Other studies were also referenced, but with less spectacular results. In all the studies, no adverse side-effects were reported. More detailed studies, in which blood plasma levels are monitored, have not yet been completed on the new patch designs, and until then it is hard to establish their effectiveness. However, now that they are on the market users can experiment with them and make up their own minds. If you have chronic medical issues then there may be a patch that is perfect to treat it, delivering a constant and sustained dose of your medicine. If, however, you are looking for a way to get high more discreetly, the patch may not be your best option and you may want to stick to edibles.

Developing a cannabis patch

Many medicines today come in the form of transdermal patches, including nicotine replacement and pain therapies. Although the human skin protects us from the environment, it can be penetrated by molecules that are significantly small or have the right solubility and polarity to pass through the dermal layers of cells. In the 1990s, researchers started to wonder if cannabis could be administered in such a way, and several patents were applied for. In the year 2000 and again in 2001 the first cannabis patch applications were approved. The patents claimed that the patch would be used for nausea and pain associated with chemotherapy or AIDs treatment, arthritis, glaucoma, migraines, muscle spasticity, multiple sclerosis, stress, depression, and seizures [internal link to “does cannabis help or hurt seizures’ article]. Basically, all conditions that require the long-term, constant release of cannabinoids into the system, particularly when small doses are desired. This also allows for a steady concentration in the bloodstream, which cannot be achieved by smoking or eating it. The patent predicted that the patch would deliver a constant dose of cannabinoids for up to 7 days, with a daily dose up to 10mg.

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Today’s Cannabis Patches

A more recent patent was filed in 2015, which included trails proving the concept of an effective cannabis patch. In the years between the original patents and 2015, many of the obstacles involved in development were solved, and the science behind cannabis as a medicine has also has come a long way. The patch that was developed by the patent holder lasts for 12 hours, and provides a constant and calculated dose of cannabinoids to the body, along with a mix of terpenes to regulate and improve the effects. The patch is not so much for getting high, but for medical treatment, and as such most of the varieties are focused on cannabinoids other than THC, such as CBD or CBN for their activity in fighting pain, inflammation, and tumor growth. There are many varieties of patches now available in legal states, many with added terpenes or cannabinoid proportions for particular ailments and conditions.

How Else Is Medical Cannabis Administered?

marijuana medical cannabis oil cbd iStock / OlegMalyshev
You would be hard-pressed to find a doctor that thinks smoking cannabis is the best route of administration. Although many doctors agree on the medicinal benefits of the plant, smoking is not only dangerous to human health, but it is also hard to know how much cannabis is being consumed, and also possible for those patients that are immunocompromised to get fungal infections. In saying that however, smoking is an effective route of administration in the sense that the desired cannabinoids enter into the bloodstream immediately and in high quantities, and are less affected by metabolism in the liver. Despite the negative consequences, smoking is still a popular form of cannabis consumption by medical patients. Vaporizing is also an option, which provides the same benefits with less of the negative side effects. Several alternatives to smoking are currently available and are used in research studies on cannabis. Another common form of cannabis administration is through edibles.  In 2014, there were 1.96 million edibles sold to medical cannabis consumers, just in Colorado. This, combined with the 2.85 million recreational edibles sold in the state, made up 45% of the total cannabis sales in the state. Some simple algebra using these figures allows us to extrapolate that medical edible sales accounted for 18% of the total cannabis sales in Colorado that year.  Nationally, 29.8% of people who have reported consuming cannabis report doing so in either edible or drink form. Taking cannabis orally through edibles has the advantage of being able to closely titrate the dosage, use full-spectrum extracts for the “entourage effect,” and patients are likely to comply with the treatment. The problems with oral consumption include the reliance on metabolism by the liver, which can vary in individuals or be compromised due to comorbidities. It can also be difficult for cancer patients to eat edibles due to nausea and lack of appetite. Another form of administration is cannabis tinctures. These are absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth, or sublingually (under the tongue). They have the advantage of absorbing directly into the bloodstream for faster action than edibles and can deliver known amounts of cannabinoids without being metabolized by the liver. The downside is that, in practice, many patients do not allow a long enough time for absorption before swallowing the solution, which alters its action and effects. There are also cannabis suppositories, which eliminate the problem of not waiting long enough with sublingual tinctures, however, patient compliance is often a problem. A few years back a nasal spray was put on to the market, which has been well accepted but also causes irritation of the nose in some patients.

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