Cancer patients used less opioids to manage their pain while receiving treatment in states where medical cannabis was legalised, according to a new study.
The findings of the study suggest that medical cannabis legalisation was associated with a lower rate of opioid dispensing and pain-related hospital admissions among some adults receiving treatment for cancer.
The nature of these associations and their implications for patient safety and quality of life need to be further investigated, say the authors of the paper.
Researchers set out to analyse the link between recent medical cannabis legalisation in the US and changes in opioid-related and pain-related outcomes for adults with newly-diagnosed cancer.
The prevalence of pain among this population is thought to be as high as 55% during anticancer treatment.
How did the study work?
The cross-sectional study examined over 38,000 privately insured patients aged 18 -64 years with a new diagnosis of breast, colorectal, or lung cancer between 2012- 2017, who received cancer treatment during the first six months after diagnosis.
They used commercial claims data to estimate the prevalence of opioid use among patients living in 34 states without medical cannabis legalisation by 1 January, 2012.
Secondary analysis then differentiated between medical cannabis legalisation, with and without legal allowances for retail dispensaries.
Findings were measured by the rate of patients who had ‘one or more days of opioids’ and ‘one or more pain-related emergency department visits or hospitalisations’ during the six months after a new cancer diagnosis.
Reduction in opioid dispensing
The results showed that medical cannabis legalisation was associated with a 5.5% to 19.2% relative reduction in the rate of opioid dispensing.
It was also linked to a reduction in the rate of one or more pain-related hospital events from 19.3% to 13.0% among patients with lung cancer who had been prescribed opioids prior to their diagnosis.
The authors of the study concluded: “This cross-sectional study found that medical marijuana legalisation between 2012 and 2017 was associated with reductions in the rate of opioid dispensing and pain-related hospital events in some privately insured patients aged 18 to 64 years receiving anticancer treatment.
“The findings suggest that medical marijuana could be serving as a substitute for opioids to some extent. Future studies need to elucidate the nature of the associations and their implications for patient outcomes.”
Previous research on opioid use among cancer patients
The findings are consistent with previous studies which have also suggested medical cannabis could act as a substitute for opioids in managing cancer pain.
A study published earlier this year in Frontiers in Pain Research found that for most oncology patients, cannabis improved pain measures significantly, decreased other cancer-related symptoms and allowed them to reduce their consumption of painkillers.
Those behind the study suggested that cannabis may be carefully considered as an alternative to the pain relief medicines that are usually prescribed to cancer patients.
This article was originally featured on Cannabis Health News.