Evidence to support the theory that medical cannabis can replace or reduce opioids continues to pile up. The majority of patients in a study—79% or nearly four out of five—reported “cessation or reduction in pain medication use” after beginning a regimen of medical cannabis.

The large sample size study was published online September 27 in Substance Use & Misuse.

Led by Carolyn E. Pritchett, Ph.D., of Emerald Coast Research in Tallahassee, Florida, and a team of researchers set out to record perceptions of health functioning and changes in opioid pain medication use.

They conducted a survey of 2,183 Florida medical cannabis patients who self-reported medical cannabis use and opioid use.

The most commonly reported conditions were pain and mental health combined at 47.9%, mental health at 28.9%, or pain at 9.1%.

Patients reported improvements in terms of bodily pain, physical functioning, and social functioning. However researchers noted that limitations because of physical and emotional problems remained unchanged. 

Most patients said medical cannabis was important to their quality of life. About six in 10 respondents reported using opioids before taking medical cannabis, and the majority (79%) reported either cessation or reduction in pain medication use following initiation of medical cannabis.

In addition, 11.5% of respondents involved in the study reported improved functioning.

“The findings suggest that some medical cannabis patients decreased opioid use without harming quality of life or health functioning, soon after the legalization of medical cannabis,” wrote researchers. “The public health implications of medical cannabis as an alternative pain medication are discussed.”

Researchers noted the building amount of evidence that medical cannabis can serve a replacement or buffer for opioid use.

“The findings from our large sample size suggest that prescription medical cannabis could play an important role in quality of life and opioid harm reduction for patients with pain. At the community level, medical cannabis could have a more immediate role in managing the opioid epidemic than previously thought, as access to prescription medical cannabis had occurred less than 2 years prior to data collection. Our data add to recent reports that opioid use decreased in various US states and throughout Canada (as medical cannabis became available. Although our data cannot speak to the individual-level therapeutic effect of medical cannabis over time, they do lend support and further insight to recent reports of longitudinal improvements in all quality-of-life domains (social relationships, physical health, and psychological health) for medical cannabis users reporting reductions in various prescription medication use (including benzodiazepines, non-opioid and OBPM).”

Researchers said that these data points have been noted many times over in prior research examples.

“In all, these data add to the growing body of literature suggesting that medical cannabis use may be associated with reductions in opioid (and other) prescription medication use without reducing quality of life or worsening health outcomes,” researchers wrote. “A recent meta-analysis found a medium-to-large effect of cannabinoids to reduce pain and a significant effect of cannabinoids for 30% pain reduction was found across 47 randomized controlled trials. Together, these findings indicate that medical cannabis could be an effective option in treating chronic noncancer pain.”

Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a medical cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, told High Times that he recommends medical cannabis for mild to moderate pain—but not for high amounts of pain. In those cases, opioids and other drugs are usually needed.

Drug overdoses approach 100,000 deaths per year—largely dominated by powerful opioids like fentanyl.