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Many Dispensaries Still Make “Unsupported Claims” That Cannabis Can Treat Opioid Use Disorder, Says Study

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jul 14, 2020   
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A large proportion of medical cannabis dispensaries make “unsupported claims” regarding the effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD), according to a new study.

Published in JAMA Network Open, the study found that these claims were more common in US states that listed OUD as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis.

Whether medical cannabis can help treat OUD is still contested among researchers, but recent studies have actually associated cannabis consumption with lower rates of opioid overdoses and improved pain control.

Faults and advertising

On average, 41 people die each day in the US from prescription opioid overdoses. And although death rates appear to have declined in recent years, the situation is still widely recognized as a health epidemic.

In response to the crisis, many medical cannabis dispensaries and companies have begun advertising their products as a safer pain-reliving alternative. Much of this marketing is in line with guidance from US states, many of which list opioid dependence as a qualifying condition for a medical cannabis prescription. But elsewhere these advertisements don’t come with such state support.

To track the prevalence of this kind of marketing, the authors of the new study trawled through the websites of 167 medical dispensaries based across 7 states. They found that OUD-cannabis claims were significantly more common in states where OUD is a qualifying condition for medical cannabis.

Regardless of state policies, most dispensary brands mentioned opioids in their marketing. Moreover, in many dispensaries, cannabis was recommended as an adjunctive treatment to standard OUD medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Recommendations to replace standard OUD drugs with cannabis were less common, but 14 percent more brands made such claims in states that listed OUD a qualifying condition for medical cannabis.

The researchers warn that these advertising claims could deter people from using FDA-approved OUD medications.

“To our knowledge, this study provides the first empirical evidence of an association between these policies and unsubstantiated claims related to treating OUD,” their study reads. “Policy makers weighing similar changes should take this as a caution.”

But can cannabis help treat OUD?

Although not approved as an OUD treatment by the FDA, a significant body of research has found cannabis a promising candidate as an opioid substitute.

In a recent review of 30 relevant studies, researchers found that medical cannabis had a medical “weak to moderate” beneficial effect on the mitigation of opioid abuse. But without clinical further evidence, the authors couldn’t formally recommended cannabis as an alternative or adjunct therapy to opioid medications.

Another recent study found that people who inject illicit opioids and heroin had a lower chance of accidentally overdosing if they were also using cannabis to manage their pain.

“The mounting evidence related to the motivations behind people's cannabis use strongly suggests that improving access to cannabis for therapeutic purposes could help reduce overdose risk associated with illicit opioid use,” Dr M-J Milloy, a substance use researcher at the University of British Columbia and senior author of that study, said in a statement at the time.  

The authors of the new JAMA Network Open study do acknowledge in their introduction that a study conducted until 2010 found that legalization of medical cannabis was negatively correlated at the state level with opioid overdoses. However, they highlight how a similar study conducted up until 2017 found that this correlation had turned positive.


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