Long-Term Study With 1500 People Finds Cannabis Does Not Treat Pain

This 4-year study published in a prominent medical journal contradicts research about cannabis as an opioid replacement.

Jul 15, 2018

Michael Wyllie exhales a pale stream of medical marijuana vapor in a bedroom at his Pittsfield home. Wyllie used to manage his pain with opioids, but switched to marijuana, which has improved his state of mind, he said. (Photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

A new study from researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) finds no evidence to support medical cannabis as a treatment for pain. The study was published this month in The Lancet, one of the world’s most highly esteemed medical journals.

The study was conducted over a four-year period, using more than 1,500 participants who had been taking prescription opioid medications for non-cancer pain. The researchers first conducted “baseline interviews” at the beginning of their study and then conducted phone surveys or sent out questionnaires over a near four-year period. Since medical cannabis was still illegal in Australia at the time of the study, it was not able to consider factors like participants’ method of consumption. 

“Cannabis use was common in people with chronic non-cancer pain who had been prescribed opioids, but we found no evidence that cannabis use improved patient outcomes,” concludes the study. It then goes on to say that cannabis users actually experienced more pain and were worse at managing their pain. An “opioid-sparing effect” was also not observed. 

This study’s findings conflicts with other recent research, and a growing movement around cannabis use as an alternative to prescription opioid pain medications or as a treatment for opioid use disorders. Currently, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of drug overdose deaths that have been socially and economically devastating.

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Michael Wyllie inhales medical marijuana vapor from a plastic bag in his Pittsfield home. Wyllie used to manage his pain with opioids, but switched to marijuana, which has improved his state of mind, he said. (Photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Everyone from distinguished researchers to prominent medical reporters and lawmakers have called on the United States government to conduct more research exploring cannabis’ role in addressing the opioid crisis.

One recent study from the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy in New York, which observed the experiences of 29 patients, found that medical cannabis did increase the quality of life among chronic pain patients while reducing their opioid use. A 2016 study similarly found that chronic pain patients’ use of medical cannabis led to “improved pain and functional outcomes and a significant reduction in opioid use.” Another study published in the Journal of Oral and Facial Pain and Headache found that medical cannabis could help treat certain chronic neuropathic pain conditions.

According to an estimate from Pain Australia, an organization that aims to increase pain patients’ quality of life, chronic pain cost the Australian economy more than $34 billion in 2007 when taking into account productivity and direct healthcare costs. The condition is responsible for about 40% of “forced retirements,” according to the organization.

But this recent Australian study finds no hope in cannabis for resolving this widespread problem. “Most participants reported that cannabis had no effect on their use of opioid medication,” write the researchers.

Jul 15, 2018