Working in the medical cannabis field has given me an in-depth perspective on the variety of conditions that can be treated effectively with cannabis. By far the most common use for cannabis is pain management. I have witnessed many of my patients and friends suffer from both their daily pain and the side effects of their prescribed medications. Once they found cannabis, they reduced their use of pain medications and became more active and healthy people. New research is showing just how safe and effective cannabis use really is.

Chronic pain is an enormous problem for our society. Reports have shown that one in five adults suffer from chronic pain, resulting in a poor quality of life and decreased productivity in the workplace. These types of numbers have shed light on the use of cannabis in the treatment of chronic pain.

A study from McGill University in 2015 has shown that cannabis is not only a safe alternative, it is also a useful tool for patients and practitioners to use when combating chronic pain. Using cannabis has been shown to be safe, effective and ultimately a better tool than conventional treatments. This study has shown decreased pain sensation as well as increases in quality of life by patients who use cannabis as part of their pain management.

When treating patients who are in pain, whether it’s post-operative, muscle-skeletal or nerve pain, doctors most often use opiates like oxycodone or NSAIDs such as acetaminophen or naproxen. These types of medications can be very effective in reducing perceived pain, but they come with their own side effects and drawbacks. When used for long periods of time, these powerful pharmaceuticals can have negative impacts on liver, kidney and stomach health as well as brain function.

"Studies published by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research have shown that cannabis works in conjunction with opiate pain medications, effectively reducing the required dose."

Opiates especially come with the risk of physical dependence and addiction, which has led, in many cases, to death. In the United States in 2014, the Center for Disease Control reported that more than 19,000 fatal drug overdoses were linked to opiate pain medication, which was 40% of all overdoses that year. Despite the known drawbacks of these effective but risky treatments, the mainstream healthcare industry has been reluctant to embrace alternatives such as cannabis as a tool in pain management, citing a lack of evidence in safety or efficacy.

Opponents of cannabis as medicine have long said that due to lack of clinical trials, cannabis could not be used in clinical settings to treat pain. However, those opponents will have to find another argument, as a study completed in 2015 has shown that not only is cannabis a safe medicine, it has been shown to be beneficial in several more ways than once thought.

In conjunction with McGill University in Montreal, Canadian Dr. Mark Ware has published his year-long study findings that outline the safety and efficacy of cannabis in treating pain. The people who used cannabis in his clinical study showed decreased levels of perceived pain compared to the people who did not use cannabis.

Cannabis also didn’t show any increased risk of serious adverse effects or negative impacts to memory or lung function. Other findings of this study include improvements in mood among the cannabis using study population. Things like anxiety, depression, anger, hostility and fatigue were elevated compared to the non-cannabis using controls.

While there was an increase in adverse events such as headaches, nausea and respiratory issues, there was no increase in serious adverse events. This is clear proof that cannabis is without the harms associated with other pain treatments. Better evidence yet is a study that tracked overdose deaths in the United State. It found that the states with medical marijuana laws had reduced rates of opiate overdoses.

This study, funded by the RAND Corp., found specifically that the presence of cannabis dispensaries made the largest impact, as access is a fundamental component to the use of cannabis. The states that did not have reliable access to cannabis, but had medical marijuana laws on the books, did not see the same reduction in opiate overdoses.

Furthermore, studies published by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research have shown that cannabis works in conjunction with opiate pain medications, effectively reducing the required dose. This means that rather than being a gateway, cannabis is more likely to reduce the use of other drugs for pain treatment.

As laws are relaxed and barriers to access are eliminated, we have a clear path forward in how to treat chronic pain. Although it is not appropriate in all circumstances, cannabis is a proven, safe and effective alternative to harmful pain treatments. The continued barriers to access only perpetuate a failed system of opiate abuse.