Study Finds Patients with Cancer More Likely to Use Marijuana

An analysis showed increasing rates of medical marijuana use for individuals diagnosed with cancer over a 10-year period.

Many individuals with cancer turn to medical marijuana for symptom relief, with rates of use in the United States increasing over time, according to a new study published in CANCER. However, more studies are needed to assess its efficacy in treating cancer-related pain in order to further support marijuana use as an alternative to opioid analgesics.

Pain is a common cancer symptom for which patients often seek relief. Although prescription opioids are also more likely to be used among patients with cancer-related pain, evolving marijuana legislation has led to increased access to medical cannabis as an alternative therapy. For patients who do not benefit from opioids, medical marijuana could be an additional option for symptom relief.

For the study, researchers analyzed self-reported marijuana and prescription opioid use among patients with cancer over a 10-year period using the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2005 and 2014. There was a total of 19,604 respondents and 826 patients with cancer were matched to 1652 controls.

Among the survey respondents who had cancer, 40.3% reported using marijuana within the past year compared with 38% of those without cancer. Respondents with cancer were also more likely to indicate use of prescription opioids (13.4%) compared with their counterparts without cancer (6.4%), according to the study. The findings also showed that the odds of marijuana use significantly increased over time, despite rates of opioid use remaining stable. However, cancer diagnosis did not significantly affect the longitudinal odds of marijuana or opioid use over time, the researchers noted.

The increase in marijuana use is likely reflective of increased availability and legislative changes, and determining the prevalence of use of these substances is especially relevant due to the current opioid epidemic, according to the study. Further research is warranted to quantify the efficacy of marijuana use in treating cancer-related pain, as well as identifying the risk of opioid misuse in these patients, the researchers wrote.

“Medical marijuana legalization has previously been associated with a reduction in hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse, suggesting that if patients are in fact substituting marijuana for opioids, this may introduce an opportunity for reducing opioid-related morbidity and mortality,” lead study author Jona Hattangadi-Gluth, MD, said in a press release. “Of course, it will also be important to identify risks and adverse effects of marijuana, which has not previously been studied on large randomized clinical trials, given its scheduling as a class 1 controlled substance.”

References

Tringale KR, Huynh-Le M, Salans M, et al. The role of cancer in marijuana and prescription opioid use in the United States: A population-based analysis from 2005 to 2014. Cancer. 2019. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.32059

Study Provides Insights on Marijuana and Opioid Use in People with Cancer [news release]. Wiley. https://newsroom.wiley.com/press-release/cancer/study-provides-insights-marijuana-and-opioid-use-people-cancer. Accessed April 22, 2019.