Estimates from 2019 revealed that more than 62% of all medical cannabis users consumed the drug to manage chronic pain. There is little evidence to suggest that this number has changed much over the past few years. So what we have is a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, trust cannabis as a chronic pain treatment. But why?
Medical cannabis proponents continually push their drug of choice as one of the best alternatives to prescription pain meds. Skeptics say there is no scientific basis for doing so. Furthermore, there are conflicting studies. Some say that cannabis is an effective pain reliever while others say it isn’t.
As an outside observer who has never used cannabis for any purpose, I am left with a single question after listening to both sides of the argument: does causation really matter? If pain relief is what medical cannabis users are after, and they get it, hasn’t the mission been accomplished?
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No Pharmacological Benefit
Medical cannabis skeptics got a big boost in late 2022 when a study published in the JAMA Network Open suggested cannabis was no better than placebo for relieving pain. The clinical trial was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 1,459 participants.
Researchers found no significant differences in pain relief measurements among the control and test groups. This led them to conclude that the placebo effect may be responsible for any pain relief patients experience after using medical cannabis.
Improved Pain Levels and Quality of Life
No doubt the 2022 study put a damper on efforts by cannabis proponents to continue defending the drug as a pain reliever. But they got their own boost when a more recent Australian study was published in the PLOS ONE journal.
While the 2022 study was structured as a clinical trial, the Australian study was structured as a longitudinal study that followed more than 2,300 patients over 12 months. Not only was the Australian study larger in scale, but it also took into account a longer total test period.
It revealed that the majority of patients reported improved pain levels and quality of life at 3-month follow-up. Researchers have yet to release data from the 12-month follow-up. However, proponents do not expect to see significantly different results.
Patients Swear by It
Conflicting studies about the efficacy of medical cannabis abound. The conflicts are not limited to pain relief alone. And yet, countless numbers of patients swear by cannabis as their preferred chronic pain treatment. That’s certainly the case in Utah, where the cannabis experts at Utah Marijuana say that chronic pain remains the number one reason for applying for a medical cannabis card.
It is reasonable to believe that large numbers of patients swear by medical cannabis as an effective pain reliever. So, we’re back to the question of causation. Does it really matter whether cannabis pain relief is the result of the placebo effect or some unknown physiological reaction? I would suggest not.
Medical science is incapable of answering every question it’s asked. It is not capable of explaining every minute detail of human biology. But whether we can explain how something works has little bearing on whether it actually does. What we should be most concerned about are the results.
If It Works and Is Safe
It would be nice to know the exact mechanism behind how cannabis offers pain relief. Until we can figure that out, the emphasis should be on whether medical cannabis works and is safe. At this point, both seem to be true. They seem to be true regardless of causation.