The Minnesota Department of Health reported today that 42 percent of the more than 2,000 first-time medicinal marijuana users with intractable pain enrolled in its research study obtained significant pain relief. In announcing the results, the Minnesota Health Commissioner said, “We need additional and more rigorous study, but these results are clinically significant and promising for both pain treatment and reducing opioid dependence.”
The study found that 63 percent of the patients who were taking opioids for their chronic pain when they started taking cannabis were able to reduce or eliminate their opioid use after six months. Some patients were also able to reduce their use of other pain medicines, as well as benzodiazepines.
This is not the first study to point to the potential of cannabis in reducing opioid use. A study reported in JAMA in 2014 by researchers looked at all 50 states from 1999-2010 and found opioid overdose rates approximately 25 percent lower in states with legalized medicinal marijuana during that time period. A RAND study published in the March 2018 Journal of Health Economics reveals similar findings. And researchers at the University of Michigan reported in 2016 64 percent of chronic pain patients were able to reduce their use of opioids. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley reported last June that 97 percent of the chronic pain patients they studied were able to reduce their opioid use.
Opponents of cannabis, including Attorney General Sessions, believe it is a “gateway” drug to more potent and dangerous drugs. But this is not born out by the evidence. Since cannabis was legalized for recreational use in Colorado and Oregon, opioid overdose rates have actually come down, making a case that cannabis is an “off-ramp,” not a “gateway.”
If anything, cannabis may have potential benefits as a substitute for opioids in the management of pain. And if the federal prohibition of cannabis is lifted then research can be more easily done, and we can find out if cannabis has a role to play in medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. If politicians in Washington want to do something constructive to address the opioid overdose problem, then lifting the federal ban and allowing states to go their own way would be a positive move.