Pain, Pain, Go Away: Cannabis and the Medical Consumer

By J.J. McCoy, Senior Managing Editor, New Frontier Data

America is in pain. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, among all U.S. adults, nearly 40 million (17.6%) report suffering from severe pain, while about 25.3 million (11.2%) complained of experiencing daily pain throughout the previous three months. Chronic pain is more than an uncomfortable nuisance: People coping with severe pain had worse health, used more health care resources, and experienced more disability than other adults.

The problem has led people to seek the benefits of cannabis, even surprising themselves by the notion. According to the American Legion, 22% of U.S. military veterans are currently using cannabis to treat a mental or physical condition. The group is now lobbying for the federal government to conduct research and consider offering treatment options for its members.

A 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report found consensus among more than 10,000 scientific abstracts suggesting substantial evidence that cannabis is effective in treating chronic pain, in addition to reducing spasticity for multiple sclerosis patients, and mitigating symptoms of chemotherapy-induced nausea: “The committee found evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.”

Likewise, according to New Frontier Data’s 2018 Cannabis Consumer Survey, 42% of all cannabis users – not just medical consumers – use cannabis to manage pain. Indeed, pain management is one of the most widely cited reasons why American adults consume cannabis.

As detailed in the newly released 2018-2019 Cannabis Consumer Report: Archetypes, Preferences & Trends, while motives for people’s use of cannabis vary widely across consumer demographics, its application in managing pain is a unifying characteristic. Furthermore, where medical cannabis is legal, and pain an accepted condition for the patient registry (some states do not recognize it as a qualifying condition), pain patients can comprise more than 90% of the program’s participants.

Among findings in the Cannabis Consumer Report is that nearly 3/4 (73%) of medical cannabis users have replaced a medication with cannabis. Analgesics were the medications most commonly swapped out, but nearly half (48%) of all medical consumers reported having substituted cannabis for prescription pain medications such as opiates, and more than four out of 10 (41%) had preferred to use cannabis instead of over-the-counter pain medications.

At a time when the overuse and abuse of opioids have reached epidemic proportions, alternatives are being sought from all quarters. Data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, the highest annual total ever in the U.S. chiefly attributed to non-methadone synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyls) which increasingly are supplanting heroin in the illicit market.

Those medical cannabis consumers surveyed reported that cannabis works: Among all patients who used it to treat a pain-related medical condition, more than nine in 10 reported that their conditions improved, and seven in 10 said that they had improved significantly. Reported improvements were highest for chronic pain (at 97%), followed by migraines (96%).

The large number of consumers already using cannabis to manage pain, and claiming significant

benefit from it, is far ahead of national lawmakers in their acceptance of the therapeutic value of cannabis. The disparity, coupled with the extraordinary toll that opioid misuse is taking across the country, heightens the urgency for a comprehensive and pragmatic assessment of the role which cannabis might play in helping mitigate the national public health crisis.