Cannabis users at lower risk of opioid overdose, study says

Those who used cannabis for pain relief were found to be less likely to have experienced a recent nonfatal overdose

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According to new research published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, people who use cannabis for pain relief and other therapeutic reasons may be at lower risk of overdosing on opioids.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Centre on Substance Use conducted more than 2,500 interviews with 897 people who use illicit drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and who reported using cannabis between 2016 and 2018. What they found was that almost three-quarters of the study participants reported using cannabis for therapeutic reasons, such as to relieve pain, improve sleep, and address nausea.

Those who used cannabis for pain relief were found to be less likely to have experienced a recent nonfatal opioid overdose. They were also less likely to inject heroin every day.

A May 25 press release noted that “previous research from the BCCSU found that many people at risk of overdose, particularly those living with pain, may be using cannabis to reduce their reliance on illicit opioids, a key driver of the opioid overdose public health emergency.”

The BCCSU further found that therapeutic cannabis users find accessing legal cannabis a challenge; as a result, they rely on the unregulated market to supply their use. The May 25 release said that these findings are consistent with researched published in the International Journal on Drug Policy this month, “which found that illegal dispensaries are the primary source of cannabis in the community”.

“The mounting evidence related to the motivations behind people’s cannabis use strongly suggests that improving access to cannabis for therapeutic purposes could help reduce overdose risk associated with illicit opioid use,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. M-J Milloy, a research scientist at BCCSU and professor of cannabis science at UBC. “Unfortunately, our results also tell us that medical cannabis users from the Downtown Eastside do not have equitable access to legal sources of cannabis, either through the medical cannabis system or the new recreational market. Authorities should pause their efforts to close unregulated sources of cannabis and eliminate the illicit market until barriers to legal cannabis are addressed, especially during the overdose crisis.”

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