Access to Legal Cannabis Leads to a Decline in Sleep Aid Sales
Insomnia is not a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use in any US state, but this study suggests that many recreational cannabis users are using weed to help them sleep.
Published on November 19, 2019

Insomniacs may be using recreational cannabis to help them sleep, rather than relying on traditional over-the-counter sleeping pills, according to new research.

The study, recently published in the Complementary Therapies in Medicine journal, “seeks to understand whether people substitute between recreational cannabis and conventional over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medications.” To test their theory, researchers examined grocery store scanner data recorded in Colorado between December 2013 and December 2014. From this data, researchers measured the monthly market shares of OTC sleeping aids at individual store locations.

In 2014, adult-use cannabis sales became legal in Colorado, and licensed weed stores began gradually popping up over the course of the year. Researchers took note of each pot shop that opened and observed whether or not sales of sleep aids decreased in local grocery stores immediately afterward. 

“Relative to the overall OTC medication market, sleep aid market shares were growing prior to recreational cannabis availability,” the study authors wrote.

But after legal weed stores opened, sales of OTC sleep aids in nearby grocery stores decreased. And, as more pot shops opened in the same neighborhood, weed sales grew. This ultimately caused the market share of traditional sleeping pills to decrease even further. The study reports that sales of drugs, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and doxylamine (Unisom), decreased significantly more than sales of natural sleep aids, like melatonin.

Gallery — Cannabs Is Medicine:

“These findings support survey evidence that many individuals use cannabis to treat insomnia, although sleep disturbances are not a specific qualifying condition under any US state-level medical cannabis law,” the authors concluded. “Investigations designed to measure the relative effectiveness and side effect profiles of conventional OTC sleep aids and cannabis-based products are urgently needed to improve treatment of sleep disturbances while minimizing potentially serious negative side effects.”

“We see OTC sleep aid purchases declining, which could come from individuals directly using cannabis to treat their sleep disorders or because cannabis affects underlying conditions and behaviors that affect sleep, e.g., anxiety,” said study co-author Sarah Stith, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico (UNM), in a statement. “Our prior research supports the existence of both mechanisms.”

The federal prohibition of cannabis, which prevents many scientists from legally acquiring quality weed for clinical testing, forced the researchers to use this roundabout method to test their hypothesis. 

“Economics uniquely offers tools for dealing with the historical hurdles faced by cannabis researchers, who typically focus on difficult-to-conduct randomized control trials or simple surveys," explained co-author Jacqueline Doremus, assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University.

“It is important for the medical community to recognize that the lack of medical guidance does not necessarily lead to a lack of medical use,” said co-author Jacob Vigil, assistant professor at UNM. “Dispensaries and online forums are stepping up to fill the information vacuum as individuals are forced to take treatment into their own hands, with statistically evident effects on treatment choices. Studies like ours enable us to monitor clinically significant behaviors that would be difficult to identify by providers, given continued taboos against consuming cannabis, even therapeutically.”

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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