Our elected officials and health care providers may hope to curb the opioid epidemic through traditional addiction recovery programs and criminalization, but it’s time for them to consider the potential that medical cannabis has to offer in this effort.
All year, researchers from all over the country have been publishing concrete evidence proving that the legalization of medical marijuana leads to happier, healthier patients. Another study, released this week, has found that patients are replacing their prescription drugs with medical marijuana.
Published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, the study concluded that chronic pain sufferers who were legally able to use medical cannabis eventually ended up using fewer opioids and other dangerous prescription drugs.
By the 10-month mark of being enrolled in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program (MCP), patients with chronic back pain, arthritis, chronic headaches, fibromyalgia, and other chronic musculoskeletal conditions significantly reduced their prescription drug use. Over a third of the patients enrolled in the MCP stopped using prescription drugs altogether, compared to only two percent of the non-enrolled participants.
A Gradual Shift toward Marijuana
Curiously, medical cannabis patients did not significantly reduce their prescription opioid use until later in the study. Over a two-year observation period (with the first six months of the research taking place before patient enrollment in the medical marijuana program), it wasn’t until months 16 through 24 that the benefits of legal medical marijuana access seemed to take effect, concerning how it affected prescription drug use.
The authors of the study say that these reductions increased over time, suggesting that patients weren’t limiting themselves to one form of treatment, but rather that medical marijuana use was “crowding out the use” of prescription drugs.
The study followed up on a previous report published in November in PLOS One that found that individuals enrolled in the medical marijuana program were 17 times more likely to stop using opioids and over five times more likely to use less of them. On average, medical cannabis patients ended up cutting their prescription drug use in half, whereas individuals who weren’t part of the program ended up taking more prescription drugs by the end of the study.
All the Benefits, None of the Side Effects
While patients may find an effective treatment of their symptoms of pain, PTSD, and muscle spasms through conventional prescription drugs, quality-of-life-deteriorating side effects accompany these medications. Medical marijuana is usually well-tolerated by patients — some of whom in previous studies have reported using cannabis to treat a wide range of prescription drug side effects, such as nausea, depression, insomnia, and fatigue.
Patients have even reported integrating medical marijuana into their treatment plan as a way to reduce the risk of addiction and overdose.
For patients on multiple prescription drugs, swapping out conventional medications with medical marijuana can often treat numerous conditions, reducing the risk of adverse interactions between drugs and lowering costs for the patient by simplifying complicated drug regimens.
For instance, on its own, marijuana can be used to treat both depression and sleep disorders, conditions that typically would require two separate medications.
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