Evidence suggests that chronic pain is the most common “qualifying condition” for patients who have been issued a medical cannabis license and who are using the drug under the guidance of a doctor.
That's not a surprise given the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine say there is “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for chronic pain.
But data on how many people in pain are self-medicating with various types of marijuana, following widescale de-criminalization of the drug, has been sorely lacking.
To get a scale for the numbers, a multi-center team of investigators—most of them associated with Harvard Medical School—assessed trends in cannabis use between 2011 and 2015 among nearly a quarter of a million patients hospitalized with a variety of chronic pain conditions. They have just reported their findings in Advances in Therapy.
The results showed a significant and progressive increase in the number of patients—a nationally representative sample—using cannabis for chronic pain over the years tested. In fact, the authors say the amount of users more than doubled from 33,189 to 72,114 during the four-year period of study.
The research found upward trends in pain-relieving cannabis use in females, Medicare-insured patients, lower income patients and those who were nicotine dependent. By 2015, the usage figures for these groups were 40.7 percent, 40.4 percent, 40.9 percent and 72.4 percent respectively.
Average age of use rose slightly over the timeline of the study (from 42.8 years to 45.4 years), reflecting a trend, over time, for older people to be using the drug.
The authors say that cannabis may offer a viable therapeutic approach to decreasing opioid dependence, but interestingly, they also observed that the number of opioid users taking cannabis trended downwards over time.
Cannabis use can also have undesirable effects, according to the study authors: “Despite the lower addiction potential [compared with opioids] of those who consume cannabis, one in ten will progress to develop cannabis use disorder,” they warn.