In recent years, there have been several studies and surveys – most of them anecdotal — suggesting that cannabis reduces the need for opioid pain medication. A large new study takes that research a step further, finding direct evidence that chronic pain patients, including those on high doses, significantly reduced their opioid use once they started using medical cannabis.
Researchers with the New York State Department of Health and University of Albany School of Public Health followed over 8,100 patients on long-term opioid therapy (LOT) after they began using medical cannabis. All of the patients had been on opioids for at least 120 days, including some on relatively high daily doses of 90 or more morphine milligram equivalents (MME).
Researchers found that average daily doses declined significantly over time, especially for patients on high opioid doses. After eight months of using medical cannabis (MC), patients taking over 90 MME saw their daily doses fall by nearly 70 percent, compared to a 29% reduction in those getting 50 to 90 MME and a 15% reduction in those on 50 MME or less.
“This cohort study found that receiving MC for longer was associated with opioid dosage reductions. The reductions were larger among individuals who were prescribed higher dosages of opioids at baseline. These findings contribute robust evidence for clinicians regarding the potential benefits of MC in reducing the opioid burden for patients receiving LOT and possibly reduce their risk for overdose,” researchers reported in JAMA Network Open.
The study has some weaknesses. Researchers did not track the pain levels of patients or the types of pain conditions they suffered from. Also unknown is the dose or types of cannabis products they consumed.
Although the study was conducted at a time when patients nationwide were losing access to opioids or having their doses reduced, researchers say it is “highly unlikely” that impacted their findings because the dosage decline for their patients didn’t begin until they started consuming cannabis.
Marijuana advocates cheered the study findings.
“The relationship between cannabis and opioid use is among of the best-documented aspects of marijuana policy,” Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, said in a statement. “In short, the science demonstrates that marijuana is a relatively safe and effective pain reliever — and that patients with legal access to it consistently reduce their use of prescription opioid medications.”
A similar study of over 500 chronic pain patients being treated at medical cannabis clinics found a significant decline in their pain levels. And 85% of patients reported they either reduced or stopped using opioids.
By Pat Anson, PNN Editor