The debate about cannabis and derivatives for persistent pain continues to grow in New Zealand, and elsewhere in the world. Many people I’ve treated and who are living with persistent pain say they like to use cannabis (in a variety of forms) to help with pain intensity and sleep, adding their voices to those wanting “medicinal” cannabis to be approved. In the few patients I’ve worked with who have managed to obtain a cannabis product (in NZ it has to be legally prescribed and will generally be in the form of Sativex or similar) the effect doesn’t seem as profound as the real thing (whether smoked, vaped, or in edibles).
Here’s my current position, for what it’s worth. Right now I think cannabis legislation needs an overhaul. Cannabis doesn’t seem to fit into the same class as synthetic drugs (often called “herbal highs” or synthetic “cannabis”) – for one, the plant probably contains a whole lot of substances that have yet to be fully analysed, and for another, I have yet to see a death reported from cannabis use, yet in Auckland, NZ, alone this year there have been around 9 people who have died from taking the synthetic substance, whatever it is. Cannabis seems to cause less harm than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, and in many places in the world it’s been legalised with some interesting effects on use of opioids.
Ever since Professor David Nutt visited New Zealand a few years back, I’ve been convinced it’s time for a rethink on cannabis laws, but at the same time I’m not ready to support wholesale legalisation of “medical” marijuana. Here are a few reasons why:
- When a doctor prescribes a drug, he or she is able to rely on the manufacturer making a consistent product, with a consistent amount of “active” ingredients, and a consistent quality. At present, with the exception of the two versions available in New Zealand, this can’t be guaranteed. Plants vary in the combination of active chemicals in them, and storage and age of the product influence the availability of those chemicals when inhaled or ingested. Just as we don’t suggest people go and grow their own opium poppies because we know that opioids are effective analgesics, I don’t think it’s time to allow people to grow their own cannabis for medicinal purposes, such as treating pain. A doctor can’t know just how much of a dose a person can get because in NZ we don’t yet have a controlled environment for cannabis production.
- When a doctor prescribes a drug, he or she is also guided by the indications for use. So, although some medical practitioners prescribe “off-label” use for medications (a good example is nortriptyline, an antidepressant used often for pain reduction), generally there are good double-blinded, randomised controlled trials to determine whether the active drug is more effective than placebo. When we read about cannabis use for medicinal reasons we hear of its use for cancer (mainly nausea, but also pain), neuropathic pain, and in the general media we hear of its use for migraine, period pain, abdominal pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis – there’s very few pain disorders that cannabis isn’t seen to be appropriate. But the truth is, we don’t really know which kind of pain (the underlying mechanism) will respond, and what pains don’t respond. It’s still a bit of a mystery – mind you, this is not any different from other medications for pain for which N=1 seems to be the mantra.
Why might I support a change to marijuana laws?
Well, an interesting study from the Northeastern United States, and published in the journal Pain, looked at the perspectives of people enrolled in legal medical marijuana clinics. It was quite a large study of 984 people, so should represent a good cross-section of those using the drug within a legal system. Participants were asked to complete an online survey, and their responses were analysed by a psychologist who was “not a cannabinoid expert”, arranging the data into themes and subthemes. (As an aside, apparently this was carried out using a “Grounded Theory perspective” based on Corbin and Strauss – BUT essentially the researchers didn’t follow grounded theory methodology throughout, and instead it should be called a thematic analysis using inductive coding. Pedant, yes!). The data was then examined to quantify the responses (another violation of GT methodology), and re-examined by another co-author for verification.
What they found was a group of people, over half women, with 2/3 indicating they’d been diagnosed with chronic pain by a medical professional. Diagnoses varied, but most (91%) had low back and neck pain, 30% with neuropathic pain, 23% with postsurgical pain, nearly 22% with abdominal pain, 20% with chronic pain after trauma/injury, 7% with cancer pain and 5% with menstrual pain. Most people smoked cannabis either by joint, pipe or bong; some used a vaporiser, some had edibles or a tincture, and least, some sort of ointment.
The participants indicated it was on average 75% effective at reducing/treating symptoms, which is extraordinary when you realise that traditional forms of medication for neuropathic pain may reduce pain by 50% in around 1 in 4 people (Woolf, 2010). Participants spent around $3118 each year, but this was skewed because concentrates cost $3910, while topicals were $814. Joints were more expensive than vaporised product ($260 different!).
Analysing the positives of cannabis, participants reported pain relief, or at least being able to tolerate the pain more easily; while sleep benefits was the next most significant theme. Participants were encouraged that cannabis doesn’t have overdose potential, it’s natural, there are a wide range of strains with different characteristics, and limited potential for dependence.
There were numerous other positive aspects to using cannabis this way, according to the participants: things like “feeling normal”, “I am more active and able to do things I want”, being “distracted” from the pain, “able to focus”, and “able to relax”.
Negative perspectives included the cost (too expensive – in NZ Sativex is around $1000 a month – not covered by NZ pharmaceutical subsidies); some people didn’t like the smell, the effects on lungs and breathing, appetite changes (and gaining weight), and some emotional effects like anxiety or paranoia. Stigma and judgement by others also features, as did the difficulty accessing the drug, and conflict about the different laws applying to cannabis use – noting that the US has different federal and state laws.
Overall, the responses from these participants suggest a benign, mainly positive response to a drug, with negatives primarily around the social aspects – stigma from health providers, other people thinking of the participants as stoners, the legal situation and so on. For me, the limitations of this study really preclude any major judgement as to benefit or otherwise. We only know what this group of people believed, they have a vested interest in promoting benefits because negatives won’t support their belief that this is a viable treatment option, we don’t know the effect on function (particularly objective data), and we have no way of verifying the diagnoses individuals reported as the reason for prescription.
It’s way past time to discuss cannabis use, health risks and health benefits. To have an open discussion about use for medicinal reasons, we need to remove the current barrier: the legal situation. While people have a vested interest in promoting the benefits over risks or adverse effects, we’re not going to have a very clear picture of what happens with ongoing use. I don’t support the use of cannabis as a medicinal product – to me there are far too many unknowns, and I think we risk wedging open a gate that has, until now, been useful for limiting the risk from pharmaceutical harms. We need to subject cannabis to the same level of rigour as any other pharmaceutical product being introduced to the market.
On the other hand, I think removing legal barriers to recreational use is about balancing the benefits and harms of this substance against other substances used for similar reasons. Alcohol and tobacco are well-known for harmful effects. Prohibition of alcohol did not work. Tobacco smoking is reducing over time courtesy of a committed campaign documenting harms, as well as raising the price via taxation. We can’t campaign around health harms for a product that isn’t legal. We can’t establish useful regulation over who produces it, who can buy it, where it can be used, the effects on work injury/vehicle injury, we can’t represent the undoubted benefits, and we look, to many people, to hold a double-standard.
And sneaking cannabis use in under the guise of “medicinal” use just isn’t on, in my humble opinion. Let’s not put medical practitioners in an unenviable situation where they’re asked to prescribe a product that is not yet examined to the level we expect for every other pharmaceutical product on the market. Let’s spend some precious research funding to establish WHO cannabis helps, WHAT it helps with, and HOW it helps – and most importantly, let’s look at whether it helps produce outcomes that surpass other approaches to persistent pain. We need to face it, currently our treatments are not very good.
Piper, B. J., Beals, M. L., Abess, A. T., Nichols, S. D., Martin, M. W., Cobb, C. M., & DeKeuster, R. M. (2017). Chronic pain patients’ perspectives of medical cannabis. Pain, 158(7), 1373-1379.
Woolf, C: (2010). Review: Overcoming obstacles to developing new analgesics, Nature Medicine (Supplement); 16,11: 1241 – 47