New Study Confirms Patients Substitute Cannabis for Rx Drugs


There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that people suffering from pain, nausea, anxiety or other forms of emotional distress often swap their prescription drugs for marijuana when they can.

A new study completed by the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia and published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review adds yet more scientific rigor to the casual observations. The reported results are also consistent with previous studies going back several years.

The Canadian study is based on data collected from 473 medical marijuana patients during 2011 and 2012. Of those surveyed, 80.3 percent reported substituting cannabis for prescription drugs. Those using prescription drugs for pain were most likely to substitute cannabis.

The results were similar to research involving Baby Boomers in the San Francisco area. In that study, the most frequently cited reasons for substitution were greater effectiveness in relieving symptoms, avoidance of unpleasant side effects including sedation and nausea, and reduced risk of addiction. The researchers concluded that cannabis substitution can be an effective harm reduction method for those who are unable or unwilling to stop using drugs completely and that more research was needed on cannabis as a safer alternative.

In a study of 200 qualified medical marijuana patients in Rhode Island, 69 percent reported using cannabis to treat chronic pain, and 56 percent indicated that they used cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs, primarily opioids. Over 90 percent reported that cannabis produced fewer side effects than conventional pain medications.

A 2009 study by Dr. Amanda Reiman, then of the University of California, Berkeley, now Manager, Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, found that of 350 patients at Berkeley Patient’s Group, 66 percent used cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs. Of those, 71 percent reported a chronic medical condition, 52 percent used cannabis for pain, 75 percent used cannabis for a mental health issue. The most common reasons given for substituting marijuana for prescription drugs were fewer adverse side effects, better symptom management, and less withdrawal potential.

The continuing scientific quest to confirm results that seem well established can be frustrating to patients and caregivers, particularly parents of sick children. Worse still may be the harm done by the over prescription and overuse of opioids among patients who have no access to medical cannabis.

From 1998 to 2008, just prior to the period of the Centre for Addictions study, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that the number of people seeking treatment for addiction to painkillers jumped 400 percent. In 2010, deaths from prescription drug overdose exceeded those from motor vehicle accidents, with opiate painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin playing a leading role.

Some have argued that marijuana might ultimately replace or seriously reduce the market share of frequently prescribed pharmaceuticals like Vicodin, Xanax, Adderall, Ambien and Zoloft. So, when the question is asked about how much more confirmatory evidence is necessary and why the political process that would permit doctors to recommend cannabis where medically indicated is so slow, suspicion turns to an entrenched pharmaceutical industry.

These arguments may underestimate the effectiveness of prescription drugs for some conditions or overestimate the potential for cannabis in the treatment of others. Nonetheless, the study by the Centre for Addictions Research adds to an accumulating body of evidence that suggests that cannabis may be the patient-preferred treatment for a variety of conditions.

Anne Wallace is a New York lawyer who writes extensively on legal and business issues. She also teaches law and business writing at the college and professional level. Anne graduated from Fordham Law School and Wellesley College.

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