Medical Marijuana Reduces Opioid Use in Older Adults

By Pat Anson, Editor

Medical marijuana can significantly reduce pain levels in older adults and reduce their need for opioid pain medication, according to a small study of cannabis users. The findings add to growing -- and sometimes conflicting evidence -- that medical marijuana reduces demand for prescription opioids.

To gauge how effective medical marijuana is at managing chronic pain and reducing opioid use, researchers at Northwell Health, a healthcare network based in New York State, surveyed 138 patients who started using medical marijuana in the previous month. The patients have chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and chronic hip and knee pain.

The 20-question survey focused on how often they used marijuana, in what form they took it, how much it reduced pain and whether they were able to cut back their use of painkillers.

A month after they started using medical marijuana, most patients reported that their average pain score dropped from 9 (on a scale of 0-10) to a more moderate pain level of 5.6.

Nearly two-thirds said they were able to reduce or stop their use of painkillers, with 27% saying they were able to stop completely. Over 90% said they would recommend medical marijuana to others.



"My quality of life has increased considerably since starting medical marijuana," one patient said. "I was on opiates for 15 years."

"It (medical marijuana) is extremely effective and has allowed me to function in my work and life again. It has not completely taken away the pain, but allows me to manage it," another patient said.

About 45% of patients said they ingested marijuana using vaporized oil, 28% used pills and 17% used marijuana-laced oil. Most said they used marijuana daily, with 39% using it more than twice a day.

"What I'm seeing in my practice, and what I'm hearing from other providers who are participating in medical marijuana programs, is that their patients are using less opioids," said Diana Martins-Welch, MD, co-author of the study and a physician in the Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at Northwell Health. "I've even gotten some patients completely off opioids."

Research in Israel also found that cannabis can significantly reduce chronic pain in elderly patients. But the evidence is less certain that it reduces opioid use.   

A recent study of Medicare and Medicaid patients found that prescriptions for morphine, hydrocodone and fentanyl dropped in states with medical marijuana laws, but daily doses for oxycodone increased. A second study found nearly a 6% decline in opioid prescribing to Medicaid patients in states with medical marijuana laws.  Both studies were conducted during a period when nationwide opioid prescribing was in decline.

A recent study by the RAND corporation found little evidence that states with medical marijuana laws experience reductions in the volume of legally prescribed opioids. RAND researchers believe some pain patients may be experimenting with marijuana, but their numbers are not large enough to have a significant impact on prescribing. 

Despite the uncertainty of the evidence, the Illinois Senate recently passed legislation that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program by allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to any patient who is prescribed opioid medication.  The idea is to get patients off opioids before they become addicted or dependent on the drugs.

"We know that medical cannabis is a safe alternative treatment for the same conditions for which opioids are prescribed," said Sen. Don Harmon, the bills’ sponsor. "This legislation aims to stop dependence before it begins by providing an immediate alternative."

Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use, marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Do Men Get More Pain Relief From Marijuana?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Experts tell us that women are more likely to experience chronic pain than men, feel pain more intensely, and are more likely to be undertreated for pain than men are.

The gender gap in pain grew a little wider this week with a new study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, which claims women get far less pain relief from smoking marijuana than men do.

"These findings come at a time when more people, including women, are turning to the use of medical cannabis for pain relief," said lead author Ziva Cooper, PhD, associate professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center. "Preclinical evidence has suggested that the experience of pain relief from cannabis-related products may vary between sexes, but no studies have been done to see if this is true in humans."

Cooper and her colleagues conducted two double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies that looked at the analgesic effects of cannabis in 42 healthy recreational marijuana smokers – half of them men and half women.

All smoked marijuana at least four times a week prior to enrolling in the study. Participants were excluded if they had pain.

After smoking the same amount of cannabis or a placebo, the participants immersed one hand in a cold-water bath until the pain could no longer be tolerated. Following the immersion, the participants answered a short pain questionnaire.

Among those who smoked cannabis, men reported a significant decrease in pain sensitivity and an increase in pain tolerance. But the women who smoked cannabis did not experience a significant decrease in pain sensitivity, although they did report a small increase in pain tolerance shortly after smoking.

No gender differences were found in how intoxicated the participants felt or how much they liked the effect of cannabis.

“These results indicate that in cannabis smokers, men exhibit greater cannabis-induced analgesia relative to women,” said Cooper.  “Sex-dependent differences in cannabis’s analgesic effects are an important consideration that warrants further investigation when considering the potential therapeutic effects of cannabinoids for pain relief.”

A marijuana advocate and caregiver for patients in Rhode Island said she was shocked by the study findings.

"This study concerns me that some women will read this and not even try the most magical pain relief out there," said Ellen Lenox Smith, a columnist for Pain News Network. "We have never, in the nine years of growing for myself and as caregivers for patients, ever had a time that this was not successful because of one's sex. We have had equal amounts of men and women and the only person that did not have success was an elderly woman that was not able to follow the directions due to her anxiety of using it. That was due to the stigma from society, not the product."

Do women really respond differently to marijuana or is there a flaw in the study itself?

Previous research has found that women respond differently to the cold water test and have far less tolerance for pain induced by cold water immersion than men.

“Most studies have used some form of the cold pressor test in which subjects immerse their arm or hand in circulating cold water for a defined period of time, and their results support the hypothesis that cold pain sensitivity is more pronounced in females,” researchers reported in a 2009 review of nearly two dozen studies that used the cold water test.  “Based on the present set of studies, it appears that sex differences in cold pain are consistent, particularly for suprathreshold measures such as tolerance and pain ratings.”

The Columbia University study was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Ziva Cooper also received salary support from Insys Therapeutics, which is developing cannabis-based drugs.

Most Medical Marijuana Patients Benefit From Treatment

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over 90 percent of long term medical marijuana patients reported significant improvement in their pain and nausea while using cannabis, according to researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel for over 10 years, but this was the first in-depth study of patients who have a cannabis prescription from Israel’s Ministry of Health.

"Although medical cannabis has been legal for a decade and is licensed to patients to relieve pain and other symptoms, there has been no information about the users themselves," said Pesach Shvartzman, a professor at Ben-Gurion’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

The study examined more than 2,000 cancer and non-cancer patients using medical marijuana. Almost all said they sought a cannabis prescription after trying conventional treatments that were ineffective. Patients were interviewed by telephone in the first three months of treatment and subsequently every four months for two years. 

Users reported that their pain, nausea, anxiety, appetite, and general feeling had improved. Fewer than one in 10 stopped using marijuana due to side effects or ineffectiveness after the first interview, and only six percent after the second interview.

About three out of four patients experienced minor side effects that included dry mouth, hunger, sleepiness or “high” sensations.

Three-quarters of the patients smoked marijuana, while one in five used a vaporizer or cannabis oil.

Israel still considers cannabis a “dangerous drug” and it is not registered as a medicine. However, the Ministry of Health says “there is evidence that cannabis could help patients suffering from certain medical conditions and alleviate their suffering.”

There are over 20,000 registered marijuana users in Israel. About 50 new users are approved each week by the Health Ministry.

Ministry of Health regulations allow for medical marijuana to be used to treat cancer symptoms and to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Eight farms have Ministry of Health permission to grow cannabis for medicinal use, and four companies have permission to deliver cannabis to cancer patients.

Teenage Marijuana Problems Declining

By Pat Anson, Editor

A large survey of nearly a quarter of a million adolescents indicates the number of American teenagers with marijuana related problems is declining – despite the fact that nearly half the states have legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized it.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studied a national database on drug use by over 216,000 young people, ages 12 to 17, and found that the number dependent on marijuana or having trouble in school and in relationships declined by 24 percent from 2002 to 2013.

During the same period, the number of kids who said they used marijuana in the previous 12 months fell by 10 percent. The drops were accompanied by reductions in behavioral problems, such as fighting, shoplifting and selling drugs.

Researchers believe the two trends are connected -- as kids became less likely to engage in problem behavior, they are also less likely to have problems with marijuana.

"We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and abuse," said lead author Richard Grucza, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine

"We don't know how legalization is affecting young marijuana users, but it could be that many kids with behavioral problems are more likely to get treatment earlier in childhood, making them less likely to turn to pot during adolescence. But whatever is happening with these behavioral issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of marijuana decriminalization."

The new study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The data was gathered as part on ongoing study called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which surveys young people in all 50 states about their drug use, abuse and dependence.

In 2002, just over 16% reported using marijuana during the previous year. That number fell to below 14% by 2013. Meanwhile, the percentage of young people with marijuana-use disorders declined from around 4% to about 3%.

"Other research shows that psychiatric disorders earlier in childhood are strong predictors of marijuana use later on," Grucza said. "So it's likely that if these disruptive behaviors are recognized earlier in life, we may be able to deliver therapies that will help prevent marijuana problems -- and possibly problems with alcohol and other drugs, too."

A similar survey, the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Study, found that marijuana use by teens has leveled off since 2010, but was still at stubbornly high rates. In 2015, about 35% of 12th­ graders reported using marijuana at least once in the past year.

The same survey found that teenage abuse of prescription opioids declined for the fifth year in a row. Only about 5% of 12th graders reported using an opioid pain medication in the last year, and the number reporting that prescription opioids were “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get also continues to drop.

Medical marijuana is legal or decriminalized in 24 states and the District of Columbia, and several states are considering legalization. Opponents have long maintained that legalization would have harmful effects on young people.

“Perhaps the biggest public health concern around medical marijuana liberalization and legalization concerns the potential impact on teenagers, who could have greater access to it as a drug of abuse and who may increasingly see marijuana as a ‘safe, natural’ medicine rather than a harmful intoxicant,” wrote Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly.

“Although there is still much to learn about marijuana’s impact on the developing brain, the existing science paints a picture of lasting adverse consequences when the drug is used heavily prior to the completion of brain maturation in young adulthood. In teens, marijuana appears to impair cognitive development, may lower IQ and may precipitate psychosis in individuals with a genetic vulnerability.”

According to a recent report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, where marijuana has been fully legalized since 2013, nearly a third (31%) of young adults, ages 18 to 25, have used in marijuana in the last 30 days, up from 21% in 2006. The number of juveniles on probation testing positive for THC has also increased since legalization.  

Big Decline in Opioid Use by Marijuana Users

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study has found that use of opioid pain medication declines dramatically when chronic pain patients use medical marijuana.

The small study by researchers at the University of Michigan involved 185 pain patients at a medical marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor, who were surveyed in an online questionnaire about their use of marijuana and pain medications.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) reported a reduction in their use of prescription pain medications and almost half (45%) said cannabis improved their quality of life. Patients also had fewer side effects from marijuana than they did from opioids.

"We're in the midst of an opioid epidemic and we need to figure out what to do about it," said lead author Kevin Boehnke, a doctoral student in the School of Public Health's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. "I'm hoping our research continues a conversation of cannabis as a potential alternative for opioids."

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines that recommend non-pharmalogical therapy and non-opioid drugs for chronic pain. The guidelines do not endorse medical marijuana as a pain treatment, but they do discourage doctors from testing patients for marijuana and from dropping them from their practices if marijuana is detected.

Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and four states allow it for recreational use.

The University of Michigan researchers found that patients with less severe chronic pain were more likely to report less use of opioids and a better quality of life.

"We would caution against rushing to change current clinical practice towards cannabis, but note that this study suggests that cannabis is an effective pain medication and agent to prevent opioid overuse," Boehnke said.

Researchers said their findings, published in the Journal of Pain, also suggest that overdose death rates would decline dramatically if marijuana was used more widely for pain relief.

“We are learning that the higher the dose of opioids people are taking, the higher the risk of death from overdose. This magnitude of reduction in our study is significant enough to affect an individual's risk of accidental death from overdose," said senior study author Daniel Clauw, MD, a professor of pain management anesthesiology at the U-M Medical School.

Previous research has found that opioid overdose rates declined by nearly 25 percent in states where medical marijuana was legalized. Another recent study of cannabis use by pain patients in Israel found a 44% reduction in opioid use.

One limitation of the current study is that it was conducted with people at a marijuana dispensary, who are more likely to already be believers in the medical benefits of marijuana.

CDC Guidelines Urge Doctors Not to Test for Marijuana

By Pat Anson, Editor

One of the less publicized provisions in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid prescribing guidelines is a recommendation that doctors stop urine drug testing of patients for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient that causes the “high” for some marijuana users. The guidelines also discourage doctors from dropping patients if marijuana is detected.

Urine drug screens are conducted almost routinely by pain management physicians and other opioid prescribers for a variety of drugs, both legal and illegal.

Some doctors use a positive result for THC as an excuse to discharge patients from their practices, even in states where medical marijuana is legal.

While the CDC guidelines encourage physicians to conduct urine drug tests before starting opioid therapy and at least annually afterwards, they draw the line at THC.


Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear. For example, experts noted that there might be uncertainty about the clinical implications of a positive urine drug test for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC).” the guidelines state.

"Clinicians should not dismiss patients from care based on a urine drug test result because this could constitute patient abandonment and could have adverse consequences for patient safety, potentially including the patient obtaining opioids from alternative sources and the clinician missing opportunities to facilitate treatment for substance use disorder."

As Pain News Network has reported, “point-of care” (POC) urine drug tests, the kind widely used in doctor’s offices, frequently giving false positive or false negative results for drugs like marijuana, oxycodone and methadone. One study found that 21% of POC tests for marijuana produced a false positive result. The test was also wrong 21% of the time when marijuana is not detected in a urine sample.

Not mentioned in the CDC guidelines is evidence that opioid overdose rates declined by nearly 25 percent in states where medical marijuana was legalized.

"We applaud the CDC's reasoned approach to the use of urine testing and its drawbacks when used on pain patients," said Ellen Komp, Deputy Director of California NORML. "Considering that opioid overdose deaths are significantly lower in states with medical marijuana programs, we are sorry the agency apparently didn't read the letter Elizabeth Warren recently sent to its chief calling for marijuana legalization as a means of dealing with the problem of opiate overdose."

That letter by Sen. Warren encouraged the CDC to adopt the guidelines and its restrictive approach to opioids “as soon as possible,” but also encouraged the agency to further study the impact legalization of medical and recreational marijuana could have on opioid overdose deaths.

The annual cost of drug testing in pain management is estimated at $2 billion per year. While POC tests are relatively cheap, more expensive laboratory testing can cost thousands of dollars and is often not covered by insurance.

Finding the Right Strain of Medical Marijuana

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

As a medical marijuana patient and caregiver since 2007, I would like to share some thoughts and observations about a recent survey by Care by Design, a medical cannabis company based in California.

They surveyed 621 patients who had been using medical marijuana for over 30 days, asking them about:

1. The conditions for which they are taking cannabidiol (CBD) rich cannabis

2.  The ratio of CBD-to-THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) they are using

3. The impact of CBD-rich cannabis therapy on their pain, discomfort, energy, mood, and overall well being

I would like to address three areas about the survey findings, based on my personal use of medical cannabis and the patients we assist as caregivers.

“Patients with psychiatric or mood disorders and patients with diseases of or injuries to the CNS (central nervous system) system favor CBD-dominant cannabis therapies,” the survey found. “Patients with pain and inflammation favor CBD-rich cannabis therapies with more equal levels of CBD and THC.”

I have to agree with this personally and also through observation of the people we have helped find their correct medical marijuana strain. I now sleep better at night using a night oil made with a high CBD ratio. I found that when I used another strain that has a higher THC ratio, I experienced some strange head sensations that I did not enjoy. But when I use the higher CBD mix, I do not experience those odd sensations and can safely get out of bed without concerns.  

One patient, who has numerous medical issues including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has found she does well mixing a day sativa plant with the highest CBD plant we have (24% CBD/1% THC) called ACDC. She uses this mixture both day and night and finds it addresses her levels of pain more effectively. Just using the high CBD strain does not address her pain.

Another patient, a scientist, was just thrilled switching to the new high CBD plants we grow. He has found that his mood is calmer and his PTSD is under control. He is a thriving, productive worker again with no negative side effects

I correspond with many people online and one person who uses legally pure CBD found that it did address her pain. Many will not be that successful with just pure CBD and most need some THC to address pain.

The Care by Design report also states that “THC matters. A higher ratio of CBD to THC does not result in better therapeutic outcomes. Patients using the 4:1 CBD-to-THC were the most likely to report a reduction in pain or discomfort, and improvements in mood and energy.

“Patients using the 2:1 CBD-to-THC ratio reported the greatest improvement in overall wellbeing. This finding is consistent with scientific research indicating that CBD and THC interact synergistically to enhance one another’s therapeutic effect.”

I have to totally agree with the above statement. Most will not be lucky and find success without some THC in their medicine.

People tend to have a negative attitude towards THC because it makes them high and think medical marijuana strains work better without THC or lower ratios of it. But we have not had one patient that just uses the highest CBD plant alone. They appreciate the fewer “head issues” that come from reduced THC, but quickly find that their medical problems are not being addressed successfully until they use a mixture with more THC.

Finally, they survey report states that, “CBD-rich cannabis’ does not appear to have a significant impact on energy levels (as compared to pain, discomfort or mood).”

I am living proof of that, as are all the patients we have worked with using medical marijuana. When I need a boost on a tough pain afternoon, I find vaporizing or using tincture from the high CBD plant does not provide an increase in energy. However, when I use the 2:1 ratio that includes more THC, I not only get pain relief but also increased energy and interest in being involved with life again.

As the study found and we have found, you still have to experiment with dosage and ratios to find the correct type of medication strain to successfully alleviate your issues.

Using medical marijuana will never be like it is going to the pharmacy. One pill does not fit all and one strain does not fit all. No single ratio is right for all people, even when dealing with the same conditions.

Ellen Lenox Smith and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana or to contact the Smith's, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, but is still technically illegal under federal law. Even in states where it is legal, doctors may frown upon marijuana and drop patients from their practice for using it.