An experimental pill from a new class of drugs has demonstrated potential in treating cannabis use disorder in a small study.

Based on the findings published in Nature Medicine, the drug, called AEF-0117, reduced the perceived positive effects of cannabis by up to 38% in a double-blind randomized controlled phase 2a trial led by Columbia University researchers.

Cannabis use disorder, which affects an estimated 30% of marijuana users per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is characterized by the inability to stop using marijuana despite significant disruptions to daily life.

Signs of cannabis use disorder in young people can include declining academic performance, changes in relationships and disengagement from previously enjoyed activities.

Currently, no drugs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat this disorder possibly affecting millions of Americans, according to NBC News.

The lead author of the study, Meg Haney, expressed optimism about the preliminary findings, describing them as "very encouraging." Haney, the director of the cannabis research laboratory at Columbia University, highlighted that AEF-0117 is one of the few medications tested to directly decrease the effects of cannabis, with the goal of helping individuals abstain from its use.

The trial involved 29 adult men and women diagnosed with cannabis use disorder, who were daily consumers of approximately 3 grams of marijuana, six days a week. The study examined two doses of the drug: a low dose of 0.06 milligrams (mg) and a higher dose of 1 milligram.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive either the drug or a placebo for five days, after which they smoked a controlled amount of cannabis. They were then asked questions about their subjective experience, such as feeling high or experiencing positive effects, at various intervals after smoking.

The lower dose reduced the perceived positive effects by 19%, while the higher dose achieved a reduction of 38%. Only the higher dose significantly decreased the amount of cannabis consumed later in the day.

No significant side effects were observed, and the drug did not cause withdrawal symptoms. However, the findings of the small trial will need to be validated through larger trials, with a phase 2b trial involving approximately 300 patients currently underway. Results from the trial are expected next year.

The uniqueness of AEF-0117 lies in its specific targeting of the brain. Cannabis primarily exerts its effects on the brain through tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), its psychoactive compound, which binds to the CB1 receptor. AEF-0117 selectively blocks certain actions of this receptor, allowing it to diminish the euphoric effects of cannabis without inducing adverse side effects.

Experts emphasized that the drug is most likely to be effective in patients who are motivated to quit using cannabis. While marijuana use may not pose problems for many individuals, there is concern that the public may not be fully aware of its potential dangers.

The increasing legalization of recreational marijuana across states raises significant public health challenges, as the risks associated with cannabis use are often underrecognized. Effective medications are needed to address cannabis use disorder since they have been developed for other substances like opioids, nicotine, and alcohol.

Further research is necessary to confirm the recent findings and assess any potential side effects of the drug. Some experts note that the drug was tested on lower potency products than what is commonly available on the market, highlighting the need to consider the increasingly potent cannabis products currently in circulation.