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When the state Department of Health approved opioid use disorder as a serious medical condition qualifying Pennsylvanians for medical marijuana use, it was hailed as a breakthrough for patients in recovery who had run out of options.

But another important aspect was somewhat overlooked in the hoopla around the May 2018 announcement. Pennsylvania’s research centers that are approved to research medical marijuana uses and effectiveness can study only those medical conditions on the qualifying list. The adoption of opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition opened doors to greater understanding of the interplay between cannabis and opioid addiction.

“By adding opioid-use disorder as an approved medical condition under the program, we not only give physicians another tool for treatment of this devastating disease, but we allow for research to be conducted on medical marijuana’s effectiveness in treatment,” said Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine during the May 2018 announcement.

Promising research into medical marijuana and opioid use

Nationwide, researchers are delving into the potential to incorporate medical marijuana into opioid treatment. In recent months, a cascade of research has emerged on the possibilities:

  • Medical marijuana “shows early promise” in the fight to reduce opioid use and potential abuse, according to a review of published studies presented to the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Of seven major studies examined, five tied medical marijuana use to decreased opioid overdose rates, decreased opioid use, improved quality of life, and improved pain control. States with legal medical marijuana showed a 29 percent reduction in overdoses, and drops of 44 percent to 64 percent in opioid use among chronic pain patients. However, researchers cautioned that more rigorous studies are needed to determine “if there truly are pain relief benefits to medical marijuana that can ease chronic pain and outweigh potential risks.”
  • Adding cannabis to opioids treatments offers a safer way to manage pain, University of Texas Health Science Center researchers say. Opioids and marijuana together “could offer a safe way to cut opioid dosage among patients suffering from pain and thereby reduce their risk of becoming addicted to opioids,” they said. As one of the researchers noted, “These data provide additional evidence supporting the notion that opioid-cannabinoid mixtures that are effective for treating pain do not have greater, and in some cases have less, adverse effects compared with larger doses of each drug alone.”
  • A substantial majority of addiction treatment professionals believe that medical marijuana – responsibly used – is safe for medical purposes and should be legalized, according to a new survey from Towson University. Researchers noted some “healthy skepticism” overall, with 63 percent of respondents believing that medical marijuana is often abused. Addictions treatment professionals, researchers said, “may be poised to both accept medical marijuana legalization and to handle any associated negative consequences.”
  • Gun-related suicides decreased in California after the state legalized medical marijuana, report University of California Irvine researchers.

More research needed

It’s worth noting that research remains contradictory. One group of researchers recently reported higher-than-expected opioid overdose deaths in states that liberalized their medical marijuana laws. The findings show that “research is still needed on the potential medical benefits of cannabis or cannabinoids,” concluded the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Under the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Program, medical marijuana use is allowed for opioid use disorder “for which conventional therapeutic interventions are contraindicated or ineffective, or for which adjunctive therapy is indicated in combination with primary therapeutic interventions.”

As always, patients should talk with their doctors about the pros and cons, and then consult with approved practitioners who can certify their eligibility for medical marijuana ID cards. For those who want to escape addiction but find that their treatment options are narrowing, medical marijuana can offer hope.