Could marijuana be an effective pain alternative to prescription medications?

The use of marijuana-based products looks set to increase in 2019. (AFP Relaxnews pic)

New US research has found that legalised marijuana may be an effective way to treat pain and insomnia, even helping users quit their prescription and over the counter medications.

Carried out by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the new study surveyed 1,000 people buying legalised marijuana at two retail stores in Colorado, a state where any adult over 21 with a valid government ID may purchase marijuana for both medical and recreational use.

The responses showed that 65% of those surveyed were taking cannabis for pain relief, with 80% reporting that they found it to be very or extremely helpful.

This, in turn, led to 82% of participants reducing, or even stopping altogether, their use of over-the-counter pain medications, and 88% stopping their use of opioid painkillers.

The findings, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, also revealed that as well as taking marijuana for pain relief, 74% of those surveyed also used it to help them sleep, with 84% saying it had been helpful and 83% reducing or stopping their use of over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids in favour of marijuana.

With the researchers noting that around 20% of American adults suffer from chronic pain, and one in three do not get enough sleep, the new study suggests that cannabis could help to treat these conditions, and without the use of painkillers, which can have serious side effects, and opioids, which can cause fatal overdoses.

“Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen cause GI bleeding or kidney damage with chronic use. Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) toxicity is the second most common cause of liver transplantation worldwide, and is responsible for 56,000 ER visits, 2600 hospitalisations, and 500 deaths per year in the US,” commented researcher Dr Gwen Wurm.

Co-author Dr Julia Arnsten also added, “People develop tolerance to opioids, which means that they require higher doses to achieve the same effect. This means that chronic pain patients often increase their dose of opioid medications over time, which in turn increases their risk of overdose.”

However, the team caution that more research is needed to investigate the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

In addition, previous studies have cautioned against certain groups using marijuana, such as young people and pregnant women, who sometimes take the drug to ease nausea.