A new study found that more than 62 percent of people who use medical marijuana do so to treat chronic pain.

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New research provides further evidence that medical marijuana may be an effective, safer alternative treatment than prescription opioids to manage chronic pain. Getty Images

As medical marijuana becomes more mainstream, debates have continued surrounding what motivates people to use it the most.

A new study has found the answer isn’t recreational use, but instead treating chronic pain.

The research, published in the journal Health Affairs, aimed to determine exactly how people are utilizing medical marijuana.

The study authors looked at state registry data to determine what conditions qualify for medical cannabis treatment. They found that 20 states and Washington, D.C. had data on total patient numbers while 15 states had data on reported qualifying conditions.

They compared all of this information to data laid out in an expansive 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which is a review of 10,000 scientific abstracts on the health effects of both recreational and medical cannabis.

The authors found that there were 641,176 registered medical cannabis patients in 2016 and 813,917 a year later in 2017, but they believe that number is lower than the actual number of people who use medical marijuana.

The data showed that 85.5 percent of these people with a license to take medical marijuana were using it to seek treatment for “evidence-based conditions.”

Chronic pain stood at the top of the list, with 62.2 percent of people using it to treat their enduring pain.

“Many observational surveys have found that many people use cannabis for chronic pain, but whether these surveys were representative was uncertain. To our knowledge, this was the first study that examined nationwide trends of patient-reported qualifying conditions based on these state registries,” lead author Kevin Boehnke, PhD, a research fellow in the department of anesthesiology and the chronic pain and fatigue research center at the University of Michigan, told Healthline.

Boehnke says the findings were significant in adding to our current understanding of how medical marijuana is used.

He points out it was striking to find the “vast majority of conditions for which people use cannabis have substantial or conclusive evidence of cannabis being an effective treatment.”

He notes this was important because medical marijuana remains a “controversial and polarizing topic.”

He says proponents claim cannabis is a valuable medicine for a range of conditions, while detractors call it a “drug of abuse or recreation” and that “medical cannabis laws are simply a cover for potheads to get high legally.”

However, Boehnke says the findings from this latest study show a majority of people are clearly using medical marijuana for evidence-based reasons, and states that have yet to legalize medical cannabis aren’t connecting policy with science.

“We now know that chronic pain is indeed the most common qualifying condition for which people obtained medical cannabis licenses. Given the context of the opioid epidemic and the consistent observational studies that report medical cannabis patients substituting cannabis for pain medications, we now have a better sense of how widespread that practice and rationale may be.”

Chronic pain is certainly a common issue. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report that an estimated 50 million Americans, or just over 20 percent, have some form of chronic pain. This data came from the CDC’s 2016 National Health Interview Survey.

The high numbers of people in pain has precipitated the opioid epidemic, with increasingly more Americans using — and getting addicted to — prescription medications to treat their chronic pain.

In 2015, the CDC reported that drug overdoses resulted in 52,404 deaths. Out of that number, 33,091 involved opioid use.

These figures have led the medical community to seek out alternatives to these drugs.

And while Boehnke’s study doesn’t investigate what effects medical marijuana has, he says it does underscore the prominent role it’s playing right now in treating issues like chronic pain.

“This study is important now because, up until this point, there wasn’t much concrete, nationwide data about why people are using cannabis. There’s still a lot to be learned, but this is a good starting point to build from,” he said. “It clarifies something that we had been thinking for quite some time, that chronic pain was the most common reason that people were using cannabis.”

“This makes sense, because chronic pain is incredibly common, affecting tens of millions of Americans,” he added.

However, Boehnke stresses there are some things that do “complicate this picture.”

Chronic pain in and of itself is a broad category. It can be a standalone medical condition like fibromyalgia but also a symptom of something else, like pain tied to Parkinson’s disease.

Given the variability that comes with the wide umbrella of understanding chronic pain, Boehnke says some people might list pain as their main qualifying condition for cannabis, but they could be using it to treat other symptoms or conditions not specifically covered by a state’s laws.

“Many chronic pain medications, like opioids, come with significant side effects, and cannabis is perceived as being relatively safe because the risk of fatal overdose is so incredibly low. Fewer side effects is one of the common reasons in observational studies that patients say that have substituted cannabis for medications, which is consistent with this idea,” he said.

Boehnke says he’ll be continuing to follow new data as more state registries appear online.

“We also want to do a deeper dive into how cannabis and cannabinoids affect different types of pain,” he added. “To that end, we have some ongoing observational studies where we follow current cannabis users over time, and we are also hoping to do some clinical trials in the future.”

New research in the journal Health Affairs found a majority of people who use medical marijuana use it to treat chronic pain.

The study’s data provides further evidence that medical marijuana may be an effective, safer alternative treatment than prescription opioids to manage chronic pain.