Well-Being Medical Advances

Medical marijuana associated with reduced pain and opioid related outcomes in cancer patients

Study of data from 2012 to 2017 suggest legalization of medical marijuana is associated with lower rates of opioid dispensing and fewer hospital events for pain.
doctor with pills in one hand and medical marijuana in the other
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Story at a glance


  • Marijuana for medical use has been legalized in many states.

  • Cancer patients in particular may benefit from medical marijuana for managing pain and symptoms.

  • An analysis of insurance claims suggests that the legalization of medical marijuana is associated with reduced opioid dispensing and pain-related hospital visits.

A new study finds a link between the legalization of medical marijuana and a reduction in the rate of opioid dispensing and pain-related hospital events in some cancer patients. 

In a paper published in the journal JAMA Oncology, researchers look at insurance claims data from 2012 to 2017 for patients with breast, colorectal and lung cancers. Overall, they had data on nearly 60,000 patients between the ages of 18 and 64. 

In 2012, there were 34 states where medical marijuana was not legalized. By 2017, 14 of them had implemented legalized medical marijuana. Another of the key changes was whether states allowed retail dispensaries, which increases availability and access. 

For patients with lung cancer and recent access to opioids, medical marijuana legalization was associated with a reduction in pain-related hospital visits, from 19 to 13 percent. These reductions occurred soon after legalization. 

For all types of cancer, the data also showed medical marijuana legalization was associated with a reduction in the rate of one or more days where the patient was in possession of prescription opioids during the first six months after diagnosis.  

Medical marijuana legalization was associated with a 5 to 20 percent reduction in opioid dispensing after a new cancer diagnosis. Medical marijuana legalization accompanied by dispensary allowances was associated with a larger reduction in opioid dispensing compared with legalization without dispensaries. 

One of the limitations of the study was a lack of data on clinician practices or patient use of medical marijuana. The authors point to recent surveys suggesting that there’s a high level of interest in medical marijuana among cancer patients but low level of knowledge and variation in willingness to prescribe among physicians. 

The data does not include people who do not use commercial insurance, and the results also do not include older adults and cannot be generalized to that age group.