New findings indicate that patients with chronic pain are more likely to prefer treatment with medical marijuana over prescription opioids for symptom management, according to a study published by the International Journal of Drug Policy.
 
The study also indicated that patients with mental health conditions would rather be treated with medical marijuana rather than opioids.
 
"This study is one of the first to track medical cannabis use under the new system of licensed producers, meaning that all participants had physician authorization to access cannabis in addition to their prescription medicines," said study co-author Zach Walsh, PhD.
 
Included in the study were more than 250 Canadian patients who were prescribed medical marijuana for chronic pain, mental health, or gastrointestinal issues.
 
The researchers discovered that 63% of patients reported using medical marijuana as a substitute for prescription drugs, such as opioids, sedatives, and anti-depressants.
 
A main reason for the switch may be a reduced side effect profile with medical marijuana compared with prescription drugs, according to the study. The investigators also hypothesized that medical marijuana could manage symptoms better than certain prescription drugs.
 
Safety may also come into question for prescription drugs, such as opioids, which have been involved in countless overdoses in the past decade. The study authors said that patients may believe that medical marijuana is safer than prescription drugs, and could explain the preference.
 
The researchers suggested that an uptake in medical marijuana could drive down prescription drug spending, and potentially address prescription drug misuse.
 
Other studies have shown that medical marijuana could save significant money for the Medicare program in the United States, which treats numerous patients with glaucoma and pain. Specifically, in 2013, Medicare saved $165.2 million from medical marijuana among 17 states and the District of Columbia where the laws were enacted.
 
In 2001, Canada created a program to facilitate medical marijuana use. By August 2016, more than 65,000 patients were receiving the drug from federally licensed producers.  In the United States, access to medical marijuana treatment is not as widespread, and patients have very limited options due to strict laws.
 
The stringent laws have limited access to researchers as well, who are trying to develop marijuana-based treatments for patients with conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
 
It is likely that future studies will examine the benefits and risks associated with medical marijuana treatment, and if long-term treatment is appropriate. These results may provide a case for expanding medical marijuana treatment options in other countries.
 
"Further research into how well cannabis works compared to the accepted front-line treatments is warranted," Dr Walsh concluded. "Additionally, long-term research into the potential impact of the cannabis substitution on the quality of patient's lives is ongoing."