Medical cannabis is often touted as a safer alternative to addictive opioid painkillers. But a new study suggests doubling up on weed and opioids could lead to greater levels of anxiety and depression.
Appearing in the July/August edition of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the study looked at 450 US patients who suffered from moderate to severe pain for longer than three months. Patients who combined cannabis with opioids not only experienced more anxiety and depression than patients who only took opioids, they were more likely to use tobacco, alcohol, sedatives, and cocaine, too.
“Given the fact that cannabis potentially has analgesic properties, some people are turning to it to potentially manage their pain,” Andrew Rogers, the study’s lead author, told the University of Houston news blog. Rogers, who’s a second-year doctoral student at the University of Houston’s Anxiety and Health Research Lab, specializes in research on opioid use and chronic pain.
"There's been a lot of buzz that maybe cannabis is the new or safer alternative to opioid, so that's something we wanted to investigate,” Rogers explained in a separate interview with Science Daily. "The findings highlight a vulnerable population of polysubstance users with chronic pain and indicates the need for more comprehensive assessment and treatment of chronic pain.”
Anecdotally, some marijuana patients who live with chronic pain have completely replaced opioids with medical cannabis. Several recent studies confirmed that states with medical marijuana programs dispense fewer opioids than states without medical marijuana, and people in medical states experience lower overdose rates from opioids, too. However, one study from June challenged these weed-replaces-opioid claims, as states on the East Coast of the US have not followed the same weed-versus-opioid trends like the western half of the country.
Furthermore, studies have produced conflicting results regarding marijuana’s ability to kill pain. For instance, a study from July found that in weed-legal states, 65 percent of marijuana patients took it for treating chronic pain, and 80 percent of those respondents said that weed was “very or extremely helpful.” 82 percent of patients said they reduced their opioid use after cannabis, and a whopping 88 percent said they replaced all of their opioid medications with weed.
In contrast, an Australian study from 2018 claimed that only half of chronic pain patients reported reduced pain as a result of consuming cannabis, and a minority of study participants reported taking less opioids after starting on cannabis.
But back to the depression and anxiety thing: Why would patients who combine weed with opioids feel dumpier than patients who only take opioids? It’s possible that the two drugs combine to amplify negative feelings, though the University of Houston study didn’t confirm that. It’s also possible that people who are already inclined toward depressive and anxious states are also more likely to combine and consume more drugs.
Regardless of what you take away from the latest study, one thing is clear: We need federal prohibition to ease off of cannabis research. More Americans are consuming cannabis than ever before, and we, as a society, need to understand its effects on the population at large.
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