Study Reveals An Increase In Marijuana Use By Those With Cancer

The study’s findings indicate that patients with cancer are increasingly turning to cannabis for pain relief.

In a new study drawing on 10 years of data, researchers found evidence suggesting that 40 percent of cancer patients use cannabis for symptom relief, a number that has increased over time.

The research team, led by Jona Hattangadi-Gluth, MD, and Kathryn Ries Tringale, MD, MAS, of the University of California, San Diego, used survey data to examine the trends of marijuana and opioid use in people with cancer in the United States.

Researchers concluded that, “Although opioid use did not significantly change from 2005 to 2014 among all respondents, marijuana use did increase, likely reflecting increased availability and legislative changes.”

For their study, the researchers utilized 10 years of data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The information collected was obtained through self-disclosed use of marijuana and opioids among patients with cancer between the ages of 20 and 60.

Their analysis matched 826 people with cancer to 1,652 controls without cancer. Among survey respondents who had cancer, 40.3 percent reported having used marijuana within the past year, compared with 38 percent of respondents without cancer. The study also revealed that people with cancer were more likely to use prescription opioids than those without cancer, although rates of opioid use appear to have remained stable.

The findings could indicate that more patients with cancer are opting to address their pain symptoms with medical marijuana rather than opioids.

Lead researcher Dr. Hattangadi-Gluth noted that while there has been reports of beneficial impacts due to marijuana substitution for opioid use, more research is needed.

“Medical marijuana legalization has previously been associated with a reduction in hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse, suggesting that if patients are in fact substituting marijuana for opioids, this may introduce an opportunity for reducing opioid-related morbidity and mortality,” Hattangadi-Gluth said.

“Of course, it will also be important to identify risks and adverse effects of marijuana, which has not previously been studied on large randomized clinical trials, given its scheduling as a class 1 controlled substance.”

The new study, “The role of cancer in marijuana and prescription opioid use in the United States: A population‐based analysis from 2005 to 2014,” was published in the peer-reviewed journal CAN-CAR in April.

Marijuana as an Alternative to Prescriptions

Prior evidence also indicates that more patients are using marijuana rather than prescription drugs like opioids for pain relief.

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Pain Research, nearly half of respondents reported using cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs. Evidence from the study also showed that substitution was greater with medical marijuana users and higher in states where medicinal marijuana is legal.

The study concluded that the data contributes to “a growing body of literature suggesting cannabis, legal or otherwise, is being used as a substitute for prescription drugs, particularly prescription pain relievers.”

The research team included Dr. Michelle Sexton, James Corroon Jr., ND, MPH, and Laurie Mischley, ND, PhD, MPH.

“Evidence suggests that many patients are seeking natural alternatives and either requesting cannabis or initiating cannabis use on their own, even in states with no legislative initiative for medical use of cannabis,” Sexton said in a statement for Physicians Weekly. “However, information is lacking on whether or not these patients are intentionally substituting cannabis for prescription drugs.”

Last December, oncologists from Kymera Independent Physicians found that 41 percent of patients reduced their intake of opioids after having taken medical marijuana for at least one month. Eighty percent of the patients in the study who were diagnosed with cancer self-reported pain improvements with cannabis.

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