A new study shows that medical marijuana can be an important tool for managing pain, providing patients with an alternative to opioids and reducing their use of the powerful but highly addictive painkillers. The study, which was published last month by the peer-reviewed journal Substance Use and Misuse, found that patients using medical cannabis reported being in less pain and could function better both physically and socially. The research also determined that patients taking oxycodone, codeine and other opioids were able to reduce their use of the medications by using medical cannabis.
Carolyn Pritchett, a neuroscientist and biological psychologist and the lead author of the study, said that the research could lead to safer options for treating acute or chronic pain for some patients.
“A large number of people feel the need to take opioid pain medication,” Pritchett said in a statement from Emerald Coast Research. “If there’s the option to instead use a medicine with less harmful side-effects, including a lower risk of overdose and death, then it should perhaps be considered. But more research, including studies that follow patients over time, is needed before substituting opioid painkillers for medical cannabis becomes commonplace.”
Study Included More Than 2,000 Medical Cannabis Patients
To conduct the study, researchers with the Florida State University College of Medicine collaborated with Emerald Coast Research, a contract research organization based in Florida, to perform a detailed survey of medical cannabis users after medical marijuana was legalized in the state in 2016. The team of researchers recruited 2,183 participants who were using medical cannabis to treat conditions including anxiety disorders, chronic pain, depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most patients were using medical cannabis daily. Most participants (95%) were between the ages of 20 and 70 years of age, more than 54% were female, 47% were employed and most (85%) were white.
Answers provided on the 66-question survey revealed that most patients (91%) found medical cannabis to be either very helpful or extremely helpful in treating their medical condition and nearly as many (89%) said that medical cannabis was very important or extremely important to their quality of life. Pain levels improved in 86% of participants, and 84% said that their medical conditions were not interfering with their normal social activities as much as before initiating medical cannabis use. More than half said that physical activities such as running and housework were less difficult with medical cannabis. More than two-thirds experienced at least one side effect, with dry mouth, drowsiness and increased appetite being among the most commonly reported.
79% of Patients Reduced or Eliminated Opioid Use
More than half (61%) of the participants were taking opioids before beginning medical marijuana. Of them, 71% had been taking opioid medications for at least two years. Further analysis of the survey data revealed that among the participants who had been taking opioids, 79% were able to reduce their use or eliminate the drugs altogether. The number of participants taking hydrocodone with acetaminophen (paracetamol) and oxycodone with acetaminophen, the two most commonly used opioids in the study, was reduced by five times.
The authors of the study, including two who have a financial interest in a medical marijuana company, said that the research suggests that when used under medical supervision, medicinal cannabis can be safely used instead of opioids to manage pain. Pritchett added how vital it is that the use of medical cannabis for pain relief be medically supervised.
“Like any other medicine with side-effects, patients should be regularly monitored and assessed for adverse events, abuse disorder and other issues,” she said.
Study Consistent With Prior Research
The new study is consistent with prior research showing that medical cannabis can help reduce the use of opioids, including a study published earlier this year that found medical cannabis reduced opioid use by 50% in a group of older patients with pain. A separate study of 40 patients with osteoarthritis published in January found that more than a third (37.5%) stopped using opioids after beginning medical cannabis.
Although opioids can be very effective at providing pain relief, they are highly addictive and potentially deadly when abused. In the United States, more than 932,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999, with nearly 75% of drug overdose deaths in 2020 involving an opioid, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that the safety of medical cannabis makes it an attractive alternative for many patients.
“Cannabis has established efficacy in the treatment of multiple conditions, including chronic pain, and it possesses a safety profile that is either comparable or superior to other controlled substances,” Armentano said in a statement about similar research. “So it is no wonder that those with legal access to it are substituting cannabis in lieu of other, potentially less effective and more harmful substances. As legal access continues to expand, one would expect the cannabis substitution effect to grow even more pronounced in the future.”
The new study, “Medical Cannabis Patients Report Improvements in Health Functioning and Reductions in Opiate Use,” was published online last month by the peer-reviewed journal Substance Use and Misuse.