More cancer patients are treating chronic pain with cannabis than opioids

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When it comes to treating chronic pain, cancer patients are now more than twice as likely to use medical marijuana than prescription opioids, according to a new survey, writes Calvin Hughes and James McClure.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego recently analyzed data collected from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2005 and 2014. The sample compared the use of medical marijuana and prescription opioids among 826 cancer patients and 1,652 people without cancer. After crunching those numbers, researchers found that less than 14 percent of cancer patients reported using prescription opioids for pain in the past year. Meanwhile, over 40 percent said they used medical marijuana.

The benefits of medical cannabis don't stop at helping patients cope with chronic pain. On average, cancer patients that use prescription opioids take those pain pills at more than twice the rate that non-patients do. That puts them at far greater risk of developing opioid use disorder or experiencing overdoses. In contrast, cannabis is not addictive in the same way as opioids, and nobody has ever died from a cannabis overdose

Those upsides can make life easier at hospitals by reducing the number of patients who walk through the door suffering from opioid addiction and overdoses. 

"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," one of the study's lead authors—Dr. Jona Hattangadi-Gluth—said in a press release.

A number of states have begun to introduce programs to help patients switch to taking cannabis instead of opioids. As these programs become adopted by more states, it seems likely that we'll see more patients forgo traditional pain medications in favor of cannabis. 

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