(Reuters) - A handful of drugmakers are taking their first steps toward developing marijuana-based painkillers, alternatives to opioids that have led to widespread abuse and caused the U.S. health regulator to ask for a withdrawal of a popular drug this month.
The cannabis plant has been used for decades to manage pain and there are increasingly sophisticated marijuana products available across 29 U.S. states, as well as in the District of Columbia, where medical marijuana is legal.
There are no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved painkillers derived from marijuana, but companies such as Axim Biotechnologies Inc, Nemus Bioscience Inc and Intec Pharma Ltd have drugs in various stages of development.
The companies are targeting the more than 100 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain, and are dependent on opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, or addicted to street opiates including heroin.
Opioid overdose, which claimed celebrities including Prince and Heath Ledger as victims, contributed to more than 33,000 deaths in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Earlier this month, the FDA asked Endo International Plc to withdraw its Opana ER painkiller from the market, the first time the agency has called for the removal of an opioid painkiller for public health reasons. The FDA concluded that the drug's benefits no longer outweighed its risks.
By Natalie Grover