A group of Maine researchers has published new research results suggesting marijuana use may help some people reduce their reliance on prescription opioid pain medications.

A survey of about 1,500 medical marijuana patients in New England conducted as a collaborative study involving the Husson University School of Pharmacy, Bowdoin College, Maine Medical Center and medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island found that more than three-quarters of chronic pain patients decreased their use of opioids after starting treatment with medical cannabis. Patients also decreased their use of medications for depression, anxiety and sleep and reduced alcohol consumption.

The full study appears in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology. It was financed by a grant from the Center for Wellness Leadership, a Portland-based nonprofit that promotes integrative medicine research and includes Wellness Connection of Maine dispensaries among its sponsors.

The study of patients in New England comes as people in Maine and across the country are trying to address a growing opioid overdose epidemic that claimed the lives of 376 Mainers in 2016. Last year, a group of Maine medical marijuana caregivers pushed unsuccessfully to make opioid addiction a qualifying condition for treatment with medical marijuana, citing anecdotal evidence from patients who had reduced or eliminated their dependency on such pharmaceuticals. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical marijuana program, was against the change because of the lack of scientific research.

“This (opioid epidemic) is a huge societal problem and we need to have a full tool kit to address it,” said Becky DeKeuster, a study author and former education director at Wellness Connection dispensaries. “That’s going to involve prevention and treatment. Conscientiously used medical marijuana appears to be a tool we should have in that kit.”

The study results are based on a survey of 1,513 medical marijuana patients, 66 percent of them from Maine. More than two-thirds of the patients in Maine and Rhode Island listed intractable or chronic pain as the qualifying condition that allows them to use medical cannabis. In Vermont, chronic pain is not a qualifying condition, but 69 percent of respondents from that state said they had been diagnosed with chronic pain.

Among all of the patients with chronic pain, 76.7 percent said they had reduced their use of opioid prescription medications “slightly” or “a lot” since starting the use of medical marijuana. The reduction was highest among patients with trauma or injury pain (89.5 percent) and neuropathic pain (81.5 percent).

“Patients understand the risks of addiction inherent to opioid medications, and many of them wish to avoid these drugs altogether,” said Brian Piper, one of the study authors and a professor of neuroscience. “In states where it is legal, chronic pain patients perceive that medical cannabis offers a safer alternative to managing pain.”

The study also showed that more than 37 percent of patients reduced their use of antidepressants and 42 percent cut back on alcohol consumption. In addition, two-thirds of patients surveyed decreased their use of anti-anxiety, migraine and sleep medications.

DeKeuster, CEO of the cannabis industry consulting business Calyx Concepts, often heard patients talk about reducing their use of pharmaceuticals when she worked for the Wellness Connection dispensaries. She said it was encouraging to see that patients were also reducing other medications and reporting overall improvements in their quality of life.

Piper – who was teaching at Husson when the study started but is now at the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Pennsylvania – said the study also shows that about a fifth of Maine patients don’t tell their health care providers and pharmacists about their use of medical cannabis. Doctors and pharmacists should be asking patients about marijuana use, he said.

“There needs to be a climate where there is better communication,” Piper said. “Unfortunately there is still a stigma about medical marijuana.”

Study authors say more research using medical and pharmacy records is needed to further quantify the changes patients saw after starting medical cannabis. Doctors and scientists say it is difficult to study cannabis because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Marijuana is now legal – either for medical or recreational use – in 29 states.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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