Can Marijuana Reduce Prescription Painkiller Use?

By Keri Blakinger 09/25/17

A new study examined whether medical marijuana could effectively reduce prescription opioid use in chronic pain patients.

person standing in front of two paths with one offering traditional medicine and the other option with cannabis.

Maybe it’s not a gateway drug after all. 

A new study out of the University of New Mexico shows that medical marijuana may reduce reliance on painkillers, making it basically the opposite of the gateway substance it’s been branded by hardcore drug warriors.

The five-year study published recently in the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine found that roughly a third of pain patients enrolled in medical cannabis programs quit their painkillers altogether by the end of the study. And that could have an important impact on the ongoing opioid crisis.

“Our current opioid epidemic is the leading preventable form of death in the United States, killing more people than car accidents and gun violence,” said Jacob Miguel Vigil, senior author and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at UNM. 

“No one has ever died from smoking too much cannabis. Therefore, the relative safety and efficacy of using cannabis in comparison to that of the other scheduled medications should be taken by the health providers and legislators, and may very well to have been considered by the patients in our study.”

The study looked at 125 chronic pain patients—roughly a third of whom were enrolled in a medical marijuana program. Using an analysis of prescription refill dates, researchers found that 34% of the cannabis-using cohort stopped using painkillers by the end of the study, while only 2% of the control group did. 

“The potential for addiction and health risks associated with using multiple scheduled drugs places additional direct monetary and health costs on patients and healthcare systems due to an increased number of side effects, risky drug interactions, dependency, and overdose,” the researchers wrote.

In light of their findings, the study authors hypothesized that increased access to medical marijuana could reduce prescription drug use—even if it increases prevalence of the munchies. 

“Potentially, MCPs might drive increased prescribing of medications as a result of side effects of cannabis use, including agitation or somnolence,” wrote Vigil and co-author Sarah See Stith. “Alternatively, access to cannabis could lead to a reduction in scheduled prescription drug use, if it treats patients’ underlying condition(s) more effectively than scheduled drugs requiring a prescription.”

Following their pot-friendly findings, the researchers are now looking into how older patients are affected by benzos, medical marijuana and opioids for treating expensive health conditions.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.