Pain Patients Prefer Marijuana over Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

A small study by Canadian researchers has found that nearly two-thirds of patients who use marijuana medically prefer cannabis over prescription drugs to treat their chronic pain, anxiety and depression.

An online survey by researchers at the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria asked 271 patients about their marijuana use. About half reported having chronic pain, while the remainder suffered from mental health issues, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia or multiple sclerosis.  

Overall, 95 percent of patients said cannabis was very effective at treating their symptoms and 63 percent reported using cannabis as a substitute for opioids, benzodiazepines, anti-depressants and other prescription drugs.

The study, published in International Journal of Drug Policy, was funded by Tilray, a medical marijuana production and research company.

“The finding that patients using cannabis to treat pain-related conditions have a higher rate of substitution for opioids, and that patients self-reporting mental health issues have a higher rate of substitution for benzodiazepines and antidepressants has significant public health implications,” wrote co-author Zach Walsh, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

“In light of the growing rate of morbidity and mortality associated with these prescription medications, cannabis could play a significant role in reducing the health burden of problematic prescription drug use.”

Vaporizers were the most common method for using cannabis, followed by smoking, edibles, water pipes, and topical lotions. Most patients reported using 2 grams or less of marijuana. Many said cannabis was safer and had fewer adverse side effects than their medications.

A recent study in Canada found that a significant increase in the use of marijuana coincided with a decline in the use of opioid pain medication and benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium.

“The finding that medical cannabis is used primarily to treat chronic pain is consistent with past research. However, the extensive self-reported use to treat mental health conditions and associated symptoms represents a novel and interesting trend, and suggests that the conceptualization of cannabis as deleterious to mental health may not generalize across conditions or populations,” Walsh said.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 2001, but only to treat certain conditions. Cannabis is currently prescribed to over 65,000 patients.

A small study conducted at the University of Michigan last year also found a significant decline in the use of opioids by pain patients using medical marijuana.  Nearly two-thirds (64%) reported a reduction in their use of pain medications and almost half (45%) said cannabis improved their quality of life.

Previous research also found that opioid overdoses declined by nearly 25 percent in states where medical marijuana was legalized.

Last week, a spokesman for the Trump administration suggested there could be a crackdown in the U.S. on the use of marijuana recreationally.

"There's two distinct issues here, medical marijuana and recreational marijuana," said press secretary Sean Spicer. "I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people."

Although 28 states have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states also allow its recreational use, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.  Spicer suggested there could be “greater enforcement” of federal law under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of marijuana use.