ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chronic pain sufferers who enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program were able to reduce their use of narcotic painkillers in larger numbers than those who chose not to use marijuana, according to a new study performed by University of New Mexico researchers.
The study found that 31 of the 37 patients enrolled in the medical cannabis program — or 84 percent — were able to significantly reduce their use of prescription opioids during the 21-month study period.
By comparison, only 13 of the 29 patients not using medical cannabis, about 45 percent, significantly reduced their use of prescription narcotics, the study found.
The findings were published Nov. 16 in PLOS ONE, an open-source journal.
“There is a potential treatment in sight,” said Jacob Vigil, a UNM psychology professor and study coauthor.
The researchers are now planning a larger study, he said.
Despite the small number of patients enrolled, the findings are important because prescription narcotics are highly addictive, and often deadly, he said.
Any kind of opioid drug “has the potential to kill people,” Vigil said Monday. “Cannabis doesn’t.”
Opioid overdoses kill about 90 people a day in the U.S. on average, the study notes.
Researchers observed a total of 66 patients with chronic pain each for a period of 21 months. Most suffered from chronic back pain.
All the patients were users of prescription narcotics at the beginning of the study period. Of the total, 37 chose to enroll in the state’s medical cannabis program and 29 did not.
The study also found that patients enrolled in the medical cannabis program were able to cease all use of opioid drugs at higher rates than those who were not in the program.
Of the 37 patients using medical cannabis, 15 were able to cease all use of narcotic painkillers within 21 months, according to the study. Among the 29 non-users of cannabis, only one ended all use of opioids.
An attractive feature of medical cannabis is that patients can direct their own health care, Vigil said.
“This notion of allowing patients to manage their own medical treatment is rather innovative, and it takes a lot of third parties out of the system,” he said. “I think that patients appreciate that.”