There’s No Significant Difference Between Recreational and Medical Marijuana in the US, Study Claims
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In recent days, thanks to the restrictive measures Covid-19 has forced authorities to put in place, the distinction between recreational and medicinal cannabis dispensaries has been made drastically clear in parts of the US. In states like Illinois and Massachusetts, medical stores have remained open, after being deemed “essential” businesses, while recreational stores have been forced to close.
But, according to a new study, the only major difference between most recreational and medicinal cannabis products is the store they’re sold in.
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study also found that more than 90 percent of the legal cannabis products offered in medical dispensaries vastly exceed the THC levels recommended for chronic pain relief.
Medical marijuana vs recreational marijuana
According to the researchers, cannabis products with 5 percent THC are sufficient enough to reduce chronic pain. Yet their study found that medical dispensaries across the US are advertising products containing 35 percent THC – levels on par with recreational products.
To reach their conclusions, the authors of the study scoured the websites of legal dispensaries in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, and California. They then recorded the concentrations of THC and CBD in advertised products. In total, 8,505 cannabis products across 653 dispensaries were sampled.
After analyzing the results, the researchers did find that the average THC concentration in medical products was slightly lower (19.3 percent) than the level found in products from recreational programs (21.5 percent). And the average CBD level in medical products was also slightly higher (2 percent) than in recreational products (1.3 percent).
But, according to the researchers, these averages shouldn’t be given too much heed, as the products’ cannabinoid concentrations varied extensively.
Ultimately, the researchers argue, the levels of THC in products from the medical and recreational stores were startlingly similar – and high. And that finding, they say, is worrying news for medical patients.
“We know that high-potency products should not have a place in the medical realm because of the high risk of developing cannabis-use disorders, which are related to exposure to high THC-content products,” said Edgar Alfonso Romero-Sandoval, an associate professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
No pain, no strain
As the researchers didn’t test the products themselves to validate the advertised THC:CBD content, the study’s conclusions are contingent on the accuracy of the products’ labels.
But, even considering that limitation, Romero-Sandoval and his colleagues are still calling for stricter regulations on medical marijuana products, in order to safeguard patients from developing THC dependencies and cannabis use disorders.
“Better regulation of the potency of medical marijuana products is critical,” Romero-Sandoval said in a statement. “The FDA regulates the level of over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen that have dose-specific side effects, so why don't we have policies and regulations for cannabis, something that is far more dangerous?”
Cannabis use disorder (CUD) is recognized by the National Institute of Drug Abuse as an illness typified by cravings and withdrawal symptoms when cannabis isn’t taken. As legalization spreads across the United States there have been concerns that rates of CUD will follow and put further pressure on health services.
In a somewhat ironic finding, one recent study did find that the cannabis-based mouth spray Sativex can significantly reduce the rate of relapse for people with a cannabis dependency.
But, that result aside, many drug reformers are still mindful of public health policies that could help tackle cannabis dependence.
“Even a small percentage increase in regular cannabis users can increase the risk of developing problems like cannabis dependence, which services would be unlikely to have the capacity to support,” Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in addiction at the University of York, told Analytical Cannabis last year.
“For the small proportion of users who develop problems, support services need to be adequately funded and available – something [US] states and countries should factor in when thinking of changing their cannabis policies.”