Can Cannabinoids Replace Prescription Drugs? This Study Suggests Yes

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Some patients who use cannabinoids for medical purposes have been able to reduce or eliminate their intake of prescription medications, including opioid drugs, according to a new peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

“Medical [cannabinoids] may be used intentionally to taper off prescription medications,” the study concluded.

The study involved interviewing 30 patients enrolled in Illinois’ state-regulated medical cannabis program. Illinois has permitted the use of cannabinoids for medical purposes since 2013. As of August, 25,600 people were registered to participate in the program.

Douglas Bruce, the study’s lead author and associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at DePaul University, says the study’s findings offer direct anecdotal evidence that reiterate the findings of other research that’s indicated cannabinoids contribute to a reduction in opioid drug use.

“One of the most compelling things to come out of this is that people are taking control of their own health, and most providers would agree that’s a good thing,” said Bruce. “But the lack of provider knowledge around what cannabis does and doesn’t do, the difference in products and ingestion methods and dosing, it’s all kind of a Wild West.”

The patients that participated in the study said they believed cannabinoids were more effective for certain symptom management. They also reported concerns about the side effects and addiction risks of prescription drugs. Last year, 1,889 people died of opioid overdoses in Illinois, according to state public health officials.

“Patients described to use three types of approaches to using medical [cannabinoids],” Bruce said in an interview. “One, as a complementary approach, one as a tapering method of getting off of prescription drugs, and one as an alternative approach without using prescription drugs at all.”

While opioids were the drugs most commonly substituted out for cannabinoids, patients in the study also cut their intake of anticonvulsants, anti-inflammatories, and over-the-counter pain relievers.

“This study confirms exactly what we know from patients,” said Ross Morreale, Chairman of the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, a trade group of cannabis growers and sellers. The trade group is advocating for legislation that permits patients to be recommended cannabinoids for any condition for which a doctor can prescribe opioids.

Similar findings were made in a study looking at chronic pain patients in New Mexico, which found that legal access to medical cannabinoids reduced the intake of prescription drugs. Other researchers are currently investigating whether cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, could serve an effective alternative to traditional drugs.

Acknowledging that the study involves a small sample size, Bruce and his colleagues are now working on a larger study that has already received more than 400 responses from medical cannabis patients from across Illinois.

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