Scientific Support for Medical Cannabis Soars

Written by Adam English
Posted April 3, 2018

Brace yourself. The trickle of evidence is becoming a flood.

After decades of almost complete neglect, cracks have formed in the federal government’s longstanding opposition to medical cannabis research.

States, universities, and nongovernmental organizations are filling those gaps as medical cannabis becomes legal on a state-by-state basis.

The rapid rise in interest and legalization has finally spurred the kinds of investments that can provide meaningful guidance from long-term studies.

What these studies are finding has profound implications across the board, from doctors and patients all the way up to massive federal programs.

Just yesterday, two such studies were released, and they confirm what early advocates — and earlier studies — have been suggesting for years.

Where We Are Now

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine already weighed in and stated that there is good evidence that cannabis is effective at treating pain for some conditions.

The Academy tasked a committee with evaluating all studies done to date, and it came to the following conclusions relating to therapeutic effects:

  • There is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for the treatment of chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and improving patient-reported multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms.
  • There is moderate evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for short-term sleep outcomes associated with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis.
  • There is limited evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for increasing appetite and decreasing weight loss associated with HIV and AIDS, improving clinician-measured MS spasticity symptoms, improving symptoms of Tourette syndrome, improving anxiety symptoms in individuals with related disorders, and improving symptoms of PTSD.

The full list of the committee’s conclusions can be found here.

We also knew that state-level legalization led to a significant decrease in Medicare prescriptions for many drugs.

A study by Ashley and W. David Bradford — a daughter-father and scientist-professor team — discovered the correlation back in July of 2016.

In short, when medical cannabis was recommended for symptoms like chronic pain, anxiety, or depression, a corresponding decline in the number of Medicare prescriptions for drugs used to treat those conditions and a dip in spending by Medicare Part D occurred.

That study used data from 2010 to 2013 and found that medical cannabis saved Medicare about $165 million in 2013. It estimated that, if medical cannabis was available nationwide, total Medicare savings could have reached $470 million.

What’s New

Building on that research, the Bradfords teamed up with several other researchers to look specifically at the pain prescription side of the equation.

Their new study, just released yesterday, found that the effect they previously noticed is having a significant influence on the opioid epidemic and Medicare’s role in perpetuating it.

Here is the conclusion of their findings:

This longitudinal analysis of Medicare Part D found that prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law. Prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.742 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened.

That is a 14% reduction in opioid prescriptions in states that allow easy access to medical cannabis in a population largely over the age of 65 (due to the demographics of Medicare itself).

It isn’t just that medical cannabis is safer. It is that patients are actively seeking a way off of a very dangerous path.

Hefei Wen at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health was the lead author of another study in the same journal that reached similar conclusions.

It looked at Medicaid prescription data for 2011 through 2016, tapping into a low-income population with a much broader age range.

The conclusion?

In this population-based, cross-sectional study using the all-capture Medicaid prescription data for 2011 to 2016, medical cannabis laws and adult-use cannabis laws were associated with lower opioid prescribing rates (5.88% and 6.38% lower, respectively).

Here Comes the Flood

An important caveat comes with this data: We’re only just seeing the widespread acceptance of medical cannabis as a solution throughout our society.

The data for these studies starts at the beginning of this decade and doesn't incorporate the last several years. As such, it doesn't cover the time period when approval ratings for medical cannabis soared double digits to 88% for medical cannabis.

The data set covers a time when patients and doctors gradually warmed up to the idea of using cannabis as an alternative to opioids.

No doubt, studies incorporating data from the last several years, as the opioid crisis truly came into public view and doctors have been pressured to wean patients off, will only show an increase.

And many more such studies will be coming our way. Medical cannabis is finally getting the scientific attention it has long deserved, and the fog of uncertainty and politics that have surrounded it for decades is clearing.

Medical cannabis has changed. Its advocates are no longer on the fringe. They are in lab coats, and they have the evidence to back up their views.

How our pain, conditions, and diseases are handled is rapidly changing, too, and it is most noticeable as prescriptions — and thus profits — shift from the parasitic pain pill industry to cannabis.

Take care,

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Adam English

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Adam's editorial talents and analysis drew the attention of senior editors at Outsider Club, which he joined in mid-2012. While he has acquired years of hands-on experience in the editorial room by working side by side with ex-brokers, options floor traders, and financial advisors, he is acutely aware of the challenges faced by retail investors after starting at the ground floor in the financial publishing field. For more on Adam, check out his editor's page

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