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Medical Cannabis Weans Patients Off Opioids, Study Finds

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Sep 28, 2022   
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A medical cannabis prescription can help patients reduce and end their reliance on opioid pain killers, according to a new study.

Published in Substance Use and Misuse, the study surveyed 2,183 medical cannabis patients in Florida. Most (90.6%) said cannabis was helping to treat their medical condition and many (88.7%) said it had become important to their quality of life.

A majority of participants (90.7%) who had been taking opioids and other pain medications were able to stop taking them or reduce their use.

Reducing the pain

To get their findings, the researchers from Florida State University’s College of Medicine recruited 2,183 participants via flyers in 17 state dispensaries.

Participants were then asked to fill out a 66-question online survey between August and October 2018. One question asked participants whether or not cannabis use changed their use of pain medications (yes/no). A follow-up prompt then asked them to describe this change (if there was one).

After analyzing the results, the researchers found that a majority (60.3%) of patients claimed their cannabis was “extremely helpful” when dealing with their medical condition. Another 27.8% said cannabis was “very helpful”, 7.5% said it was “moderately helpful”, and 1.8% said it was “slightly helpful”. Only 0.1% of patients found cannabis to be “not at all helpful” in treating their ailment.

These ailments included “pain and mental health” (which 47.92% of respondents claimed to live with) and “mental health” without pain (which 28.9% of respondents lived with). The remaining batch of participants coped with either pain by itself, “cancer” by itself, or a combination of pain, mental health, and cancer.

A majority of patients (61%) had used other pain medications prior to their medical cannabis prescription. Of these patients, most (93.4%) said that medical cannabis had changed their use of such other medications: 41.7% had ceased using other pain medications, including opioids like oxycodone; another 49% said they had reduced their intake of other pain medications since using cannabis, and a further 2.7% claimed to have cut out all pain and psychiatric medications.

Over half of patients (60.3%) said that medical cannabis had become “extremely important” to their quality of life. Another 38.7% said cannabis had been slightly, moderately, or very important to their quality of life. Only 1% said the drug had not been “at all” important to their overall wellbeing.

“The majority reported that medical cannabis was very helpful when dealing with their health conditions and very important to their quality of life, despite the usual amount of various mild side effects,” the authors wrote in their paper, which neglects to detail what side effects were present among the participants.

Opioids, up or down?

The Florida University study is far from the first to investigate how medical cannabis affects opioid and other pain medication use. The consensus from these studies is seemingly in medical cannabis’ favor.

One paper published last year found that medical cannabis products can combat pain, reduce the use of painkillers, and improve several other comorbid symptoms that are common in cancer patients, such as poor sleep and depression.

Another study from 2021 led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh found that the number of opioid-related visits to hospital emergency rooms in several US state dipped for around six months after medical legalization went into effect.

Another 2021 study found a particularly strong link between the presence of dispensaries and a reduction in deaths associated with recreational, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Opioid pain relievers usually produce euphoric effects by binding with mu opioid receptors in the brain. But while the drugs may initially be effective in treating patients’ pain problems, addiction rates have spiraled into a national crisis in the US. Up to 1.7 million people in the country were thought to have suffered from opioid use disorders in 2017, with 47,000 dying of overdoses as a result.  

In light of this health crisis, cannabis has become a popular alternative medication for those seeking to relieve pain.

“Given the great individual and societal costs associated with the opioid crisis, the public health implications of these findings [that cannabis can help wean patients off opioids] are important to consider,” the authors of the Florida University study wrote in their conclusion.


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