DAILY cannabis use could be a better option for treating chronic pain than painkillers, new findings suggest.
The drug could be beneficial - and "less dangerous" - than highly addictive opioid treatments, experts said today.
Cannabis could curb overdose risk
Experts in Canada found those plagued by chronic pain are replacing the dangerous painkillers with cannabis to help relieve their symptoms.
People who used cannabis on a daily basis had nearly 50 per cent lower odds of using illicit painkillers every day, the team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and BC Centre on Substance Use found.
That was compared with people who never turned to cannabis as a form of therapy.
Dr M-J Milloy, a research scientist at BCCSU said: "In the midst of an ongoing public health emergency caused by opioid overdose deaths, the results suggest that increase access to cannabis for therapeutic purposes could help curb overdose risk associated with illicit opioid use.
"These findings, again demonstrate that people are using cannabis to help many different conditions, including pain.
"And in some cases, they're using cannabis in place of opioids."
US opioid epidemic
Opioids are a class of medication that include the illegal drug heroin, as well as synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and painkillers including oxycodone marketed as Oxycontin, codeine and morphine.
In 2017, the US government declared a public health emergency in light of the devastating consequences of an opioid epidemic.
Overdoses of the highly-addictive painkillers accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in the US in 2016 alone - more than any previous year on record.
The US Department of Health and Human Services estimated 40 per cent of overdose deaths was from prescription drugs.
Meanwhile in the US, 11 states have legalised recreational use of cannabis, while another 33 states have given it the green light to be used as a medicine.
In the UK, the class B drug is illegal for recreational use, but medicinal cannabis became available to NHS patients on prescription on November 1, 2018.
The change of law in the UK regarding medicinal cannabis came after pressure from parents of kids with conditions like epilepsy.
Earlier this month, two cannabis-based medicines were cleared for NHS use to treat MS and epilepsy, by regulators for the first time.
To examine the benefits of using medicinal cannabis to help stem the opioid epidemic, the team from UBC quizzed more than 1,100 people at risk of opioid overdose in Vancover from 2014 to 2017.
All those taking part had a history of substance use and chronic pain.
Dr Milloy's team said their findings support the theory that people are using cannabis as an "ad-hoc, self-directed strategy" to reduce their reliance on opioids.
The team found that those using cannabis regularly were also likely to report using it to ease stress, nausea, mental health and symptoms of HIV, or the side effects of HIV antiretroviral therapy - as well as to help them sleep better.
MOST READ IN HEALTH
Stephanie Lake, a PhD candidate at UBC and lead author of the study, said the findings should be used to help improve care for patients.
She said: "These findings point to a need to design formal clinical evaluations of cannabis-based strategies for pain management, opioid use disorder treatment supports, and wider harm reduction initiatives."
Dr Milloy is now planning controlled trials to look at whether cannabis could help those with opioid use disorder, and whether cannabis could replace the painkiller to ease the symptoms of other conditions.
Patients being treated for chronic pain should not consider changing their medication without speaking to a doctor first.
The findings are published in a special issue of PLOS Medicine on substance dependence.