State laws make a sharp distinction between «medical» and «recreational» cannabis but researchers have found those legal distinctions are much blurrier for people buying from legal dispensaries.
Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and the University of Miami surveyed 1,000 adult use customers at two dispensaries in Colorado, a state that has legalized both recreational and medical marijuana, and found that most purchasers are seeking relief, not intoxication. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said that they used cannabis to sleep better. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) said they used cannabis to treat pain.
Though the purchases were made at a «recreational» dispensary, the cannabis nonetheless replaced prescription or over-the-counter medications. Among those respondents with a history of taking prescription sleep aids, 83 percent reported either reducing or ceasing their use of those medicines. Among those respondents with a history of consuming prescription opioids, 88 percent reported mitigating or stopping their use. By similar majorities people surveyed who cited pain or sleeping problems said cannabis was «very helpful» or «extremely helpful.»
Although the majority of those surveyed said cannabis helped with pain or sleeping problems, 54 percent described their health as excellent or very good. One of the researchers, Dr. Gwen Wurm, a pediatrician from the University of Miami, said the survey underscores the varied motives people have for using cannabis.
«Things get a little bit muddy when we think that people only have one reason for what they do,» Wurm said. «We’re all people with many different drivers. The people telling us that they were using for pain were generally using 70 percent of the time, almost daily for pain. The ones using for sleep we’re using almost daily for sleep. But that doesn’t mean that they also weren’t using for other reasons, too.»
The research findings, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, concluded that «de facto medical use of cannabis for symptom relief was common among adult-use dispensary customers and the majority reported that cannabis decreased their medication use.» The authors of the study cited other studies that found access to medical cannabis typically requires a doctor’s referral and registration in a state database become barriers for people who lack health insurance or worry that cannabis use, even with doctor’s permission, could cause employment problems. They concluded some people who might qualify for medical marijuana are choosing to simply purchase for adult use dispensaries, if they have the option.
«This study helps dispel an important myth that cannabis is largely used for recreational purposes,» wrote Dr. Stephen Dahmer, chief medical officer for Vireo Health, Inc., which operates medical marijuana dispensaries. «Instead, it demonstrates what we know to be true — most Americans use cannabis to address a wide array of health and wellness issues. One of the many advantages of adult-use markets is that they offer consumers safe access to cannabis to help alleviate non-debilitating and life-threatening medical conditions. We believe that the largest long-term opportunity in the adult-use cannabis industry is “over-the-counter” product offerings in the health and wellness realm that help people deal with issues like moderate pain, stress, anxiety, and sleep.»
Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, which has long advocated for ending marijuana prohibition, noted in a statement that “Several prior studies similarly show that the use of cannabis by qualified patients is associated with the reduction, or even the elimination, of certain other prescription drugs — specifically opioids — over time. These findings speak not only to the therapeutic efficacy of cannabis as an alternative analgesic option, but also to its potential role as a harm reduction agent.”