Among the more common reasons a consumer purchases legal cannabis is for pain.
Medicinal users, especially. The rise of legal cannabis in all its forms can be tied, in part, to a growing acceptance that the drug is an effective remedy for people who suffer from chronic pain. And as the opioid crisis deepens in America, more citizens see pot as an alternative to pain pills.
But how effectively does cannabis alleviate pain? And can the drug really replace opioids? A new study out of Australia casts doubt on pot’s place as an analgesic.
The four-year study, entitled The Pain and Opioids IN Treatment, evaluated the results of cannabis use among 1,514 patients who took opioids for chronic pain. (Important to note: none of these participants were cancer patients.) Printed this month in the Lancet Public Health, a major medical journal published globally, the study is considered among the largest ever of its kind.
The researchers were Australian doctors and PhDs. They interviewed patients at the start of the four-year window and at the conclusion. About one quarter of participants (295 patients) reported cannabis use by the end of the four-year window. Interest in cannabis use had increased from 33% (364) at the beginning of the study to 60% (723) by the end.
Alarmingly, those patients who had used cannabis reported higher levels of pain.
“At 4-year follow-up, compared with people with no cannabis use, we found that participants who used cannabis had a greater pain severity score . . . greater pain interference score . . . lower pain self-efficacy scores . . . and greater generalised anxiety disorder severity scores,” the study states.
From those findings, the study concludes that, “people who used cannabis had greater pain and lower self-efficacy in managing pain.”
Regarding the possibility that pot might replace opioid as an analgesic for chronic pain, the study states that, “there was no evidence that cannabis use reduced pain severity or interference or exerted an opioid-sparing effect.”
“We found . . . no evidence that cannabis use reduced prescribed opioid use or increased rates of opioid discontinuation,” the study adds.
There are still relatively few large-scale medical studies on cannabis due to the largely illegal nature of the drug worldwide. The researchers call for more trials. “As cannabis use for medicinal purposes increases globally, it is important that large well designed clinical trials, which include people with complex comorbidities, are conducted to determine the efficacy of cannabis for chronic non-cancer pain.”
The size and prestigious publication of this study, plus the low number of similar trials, means that this research may become a major talking point among pot opponents. The role of cannabis in combatting America’s opioid crisis is a common rallying call for pro-pot activists — and this study flies in the face of that argument.
And of course there’s the issue that this study finds a rise in pain and anxiety disorder for chronic-pain patients who used cannabis. That these results counter generally accepted beliefs about medicinal cannabis is a clear sign that more large-scale research is necessary.
Funding for the study came from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Government.