New study sheds light on cancer patients' use of marijuana and opioids

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Researchers suggest this population uses the drugs more than adults without the disease

With the marijuana becoming legal in several states nationwide, many researchers have explored how this decision is affecting consumers. Similarly, as the opioid epidemic continues to plague the country, consumers’ habits with the drug continue to be a hot button issue.

Now, researchers have explored how cancer patients are more likely to use both marijuana and opioids -- for pain relief -- than adults without cancer.

“Prospective clinical trials are needed to quantify the efficacy of marijuana in cancer-specific pain as well as the risk of opioid misuse in this patient population,” said Dr. Kathryn Ries Tringale.

Easing the pain

To gauge how often cancer patients were using marijuana and opioids to manage pain, the researchers looked at responses from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2005 and 2014.

Overall, the researchers found that cancer patients were more likely to use either marijuana or opioids when compared to those who didn’t have cancer.

In the most recent iteration of the survey, the researchers compared over 820 people with cancer to over 1,600 people without it and found that over 40 percent of cancer patients used marijuana in the last 12 months to manage pain, compared with 38 percent of non-cancer patients. Similarly, cancer patients were seven percent more likely to use prescription opioids to help deal with pain than those without cancer.

Because the researchers looked at the survey over the course of 10 years, they were able to see certain trends emerge. While opioid use stayed consistent over time, marijuana use increased between 2005 and 2014. The researchers attribute that rise to the legalization of marijuana in many states. However, it’s also important to note that marijuana use increased in both populations -- both cancer and non-cancer patients.

Overall, the researchers hope that these findings inspire more work in this area and prompt healthcare experts to explore how these drugs are affecting cancer patients.

“Medical marijuana legalization has been previously 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,” said Dr. Jona Hattangandi-Gluth. “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.”

Weighing the pros and cons

Both marijuana and opioids have dominated headlines in recent months, as researchers have explored the topics from several angles.

More and more states are looking to legalize marijuana, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking for ways to legalize the sale of CBD in food and drinks. However, despite these positive outlooks, parents are struggling to talk with their children about marijuana use since the substance has become legal in certain states.

On a similar note, parents were reportedly on board for doctors to prescribe opioids for their kids’ pain management, despite the risks involved.

Researchers also found that low self-esteem and general life stressors were linked to greater opioid use, while the drug was also found to be responsible for an increase in suicides and overdoses.

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