In Illinois, some medical marijuana patients say that the herb has empowered them to reduce their use of and reliance on prescription medications, with some eliminating them altogether. These are the findings of a new study conducted by researchers at Rush University and DePaul University, which was small and only involved 30 study participants.
Because the study only collected data from people who volunteered to participate in a study on this topic, researchers concede that its findings may have a bias in support of cannabis. However, it remains the very first published, peer-reviewed research on medical pot patients in Illinois, and it provides direct feedback of anecdotal evidence to back up the findings of previous studies.
The study’s lead author, Douglas Bruce, believes that cannabis contributes to lower rates of opioid drug use. He said, “One of the most compelling things to come out of this is that people are taking control of their own health, and most providers would agree that is a good thing.” The assistant professor of health services at DePaul also said:
“But the lack of provider knowledge around what cannabis does and does not do, the differences in products and ingestion methods and dosing, is all kind of a Wild West.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the abuse of opioids is so widespread that it is officially an epidemic. President Trump even declared it a “national emergency.”
Prescription opioids are killing people in droves. In 2015 alone, overdoses from opioid drugs were responsible for the deaths of 15,000 citizens in the United States, mainly from prescriptions of oxycodone, methadone, and hydrocodone. The results of this study come as a trade group of cultivators and sellers, or the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois pushes for legislation that would enable doctors to prescribe marijuana for any condition for which they currently prescribe opioid drugs.
Chairperson of the alliance, Ross Morreale, said, “This study confirms exactly what we know from patients.” Morreale, who also founded Ataraxia, a cultivation company with its own dispensary, continued to say, “A patient could use both marijuana and prescription drugs and see what works. That is between the doctor and the patient.”
However, former advisor to the White House on drug policy, Kevin Sabet, who now runs an anti-legalization campaign called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that the study “reeks of problems” and is “one of the worst I have seen in a while.” He also wrote, “It was an uncontrolled observation of 30 people who were mixing pot with other drugs.”
Because cannabis contains hundreds of individual compounds, some of which are medicinally valuable, Sabet feels that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should treat it the way it treats any other legal drug, by isolating, testing, and approving each compound individually. However, Bruce, lead author of the study, refutes Sabet’s claims, responding that he has his own bias against cannabis.
“There is power in people telling their stories in a way you cannot get in a survey,” Bruce explained. “It is important to do qualitative research to understand how people are using cannabis, and then figure out how to measure it.” Despite the federal prohibition of marijuana, Illinois is among the 29 states that have legalized it for medical use.
Currently, approximately 25,000 people are suffering from at least one of roughly 40 severe medical ailments that qualify them to use medical marijuana in Illinois. In August, the most recent month with reported state statistics, legitimate medical patients spent about $8 million on purchasing medical pot in Illinois.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the most common medical ailments for which doctors are recommending marijuana are cancer and fibromyalgia, followed closely behind by post-traumatic stress disorder, which authorities added to the list of qualifying conditions last year. For the DePaul-Rush study, participants were 45-years on average and using pot to treat seizures, pain, or inflammation.
The participants, all of whom remain anonymous, had several concerns about the side effects of prescription drugs, including issues of tolerance and addiction. Unanimously, they all claim that marijuana helped them manage specific symptoms better and that it was longer lasting and faster acting than the prescriptions they were taking.
The research team concluded that more study of patients is necessary to establish what dosages relieve symptoms, as well as the deeper assessment of their medical conditions. One medical pot patient, who was not a participant in this study, used marijuana to eliminate prescription drugs from her life. She is 26-year-old Shea Evans, an employee at Modern Cannabis dispensary in Chicago.
Doctors diagnosed Evans with fibromyalgia and lupus back in 2011. After taking her cocktail of prescribed drugs for a year, which included 18 different drugs with opioids and sleeping pills among them, Evans developed an extremely dangerous dependency on opiates, including painkillers like Percocet. “Medical cannabis is the reason I am opiate free now,” she said.
Evans gave marijuana its due, “It really gave me my life back and makes my pain manageable, without inebriating me or forming another dependence.” This was a common story among participants in the study too, most of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with many of their prescription drugs. According to one 58-year-old man, the side effects of his seizure medicine were “frightening to say the least. I would not like the way I felt taking it.” Another patient was taking 180 Vicodin pills every month.
Another was taking ibuprofen in deadly large quantities. An HIV-positive woman with cancer said that cannabis was helping her after years of trying to get off prednisone, a commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory, and a 33-year-old woman said pot helped relieve the “unbearable” pain of multiple sclerosis and helped her sleep, in contrast to prescription medications turning her into a “zombie.”