Cannabis as a substitute for opioids? New research suggests that medical cannabis use has led patients to reduce or completely stop their use of prescription drugs.
While small, the study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine is perhaps the first peer-reviewed and direct anecdotal bit of research reflecting the experiences of medical cannabis patients in Illinois.
For the study, researchers interviewed 30 volunteers regarding their use of medical marijuana in the context of treating chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, back pain, and cancer. Participants discussed with researchers their use of medical marijuana as an alternative medication, as a complementary treatment, or as a way to transition away from prescription drugs.
The study participants reported using medical marijuana to alleviate symptoms of pain and inflammation more quickly, efficiently, and for more extended periods of time than their prescription medications. The subjects also reported using cannabis to treat medication side effects.
Medical marijuana use also mitigated or was free from aversive side effects associated with prescription medications. In the context of the opioid epidemic, many participants reported using medical marijuana as a way to avoid substance abuse or fatal overdose.
Several participants reported trying different strains and forms of medical marijuana before finding one that best suited their particular needs, reflecting the diversity of options that medical marijuana patients now have in cannabis-based treatments.
The participant who had PTSD found that medical marijuana was significantly longer-lasting than prescription drugs. Participants who treated multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease experienced a better side-effect profile. Patients with epilepsy and multiple sclerosis used medical marijuana as a complementary way to manage insomnia caused by their prescriptions. A participant suffering from both HIV and cancer used medical marijuana to treat symptoms of inflammation, allowing her to transition off of steroid use.
While the study received some criticism due to its anecdotal nature, the lead author Douglas Bruce, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Health Sciences at DePaul University, expressed to the Chicago Tribune the importance of patient feedback in the use of medical marijuana as an alternative or complementary therapy.
“There’s power in people telling their stories in a way you can’t get in a survey,” Dr. Bruce said. “It’s important to do qualitative research to understand how people are using cannabis, then figure out how to measure it.”
This study complements a large body of research that has indicated patients’ transition toward medical marijuana. One broad survey found that nearly half of its participants were substituting their prescription medications with cannabis to treat pain, depression, and anxiety.
Another study from earlier this year found that a vast majority of patients who were using medical marijuana to treat acute pain found it useful enough to reduce their use of traditional painkillers.
The results from the Illinois study come at what may be a critical moment for medical marijuana legislation in the state. While medical marijuana use there is already legal, a trade group is currently pushing a bill that would allow any individual suffering from a condition that would typically be prescribed opioids to qualify for a medical marijuana license.
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