Prevalence, Demographics, Use Patterns, and Health Indicators of U.S. Cannabis Consumers
by Chane Leigh
New data published in the Journal of Cannabis Research claims that almost one in two authorized medical cannabis patients in Canada managed to either completely stop or reduce their intake of controlled substances, such as alcohol and opioids, by using cannabis.
The study, which was carried out by a group of researchers from Canada and the United States, included data from 2,697 Canadians. All of the study subjects were enrolled in the nation’s federally legal medical cannabis program, which was launched by Health Canada back in 2001. The Great White North also legalized the possession and retail sale of cannabis for adults in 2018. As of 2020, the market was worth CAD $2.6 billion (USD $2 billion).
Investigators learned that 47% of the survey study’s respondents successfully substituted cannabis for other controlled substances. Among those who reportedly used cannabis as a replacement for prescription medications, around 50% did so with opioids.
Additionally, many respondents claimed that they reduced their alcohol intake by substituting with cannabis. Approximately one-third of study subjects proceeded to use cannabis without first informing their primary healthcare providers.
According to data featured on the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics website, 37.309 million Americans aged 12 and above have used illicit drugs within the last month. Furthermore, 25.4% of illegal drug users claim to suffer from a drug disorder and 24.7% of people with drug disorders also suffer from an opioid disorder.
On top of that, 59.277 million (21.4% of) people aged 12 and above have used illegal narcotics or abused prescription drugs, such as opioids, within the last year. In terms of lifetime use, 138.543 million, or 50% of, people aged 12 and over have used illicit drugs in their lifetime.
Conversely, 138.522 million Americans aged 12 and over regularly consume alcohol, 28.320 million (20.4%) of whom suffer from an alcohol use disorder. Tobacco or nicotine-containing products, such as vaporizers, are also enjoyed on a regular basis by some 57.277 million people.
Like all intoxicating substances, cannabis can be abused to the point that the user develops cannabis use disorder (CUD). However, CUD and the withdrawal symptoms that stem from it—paranoia, sleep problems, mood swings, etc.—are much easier to recover from than addictions to stronger substances like opioids. Additionally, THC is not capable of causing a fatal overdose like many prescription drugs are.
This leads many to wonder about the potential perks of using cannabis as a tool for relieving withdrawal symptoms in alternative substance abusers. One particular study featured in the 2019 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry found that the cannabinoid CBD may ease drug cravings and feelings of anxiety in heroin addicts.
Another study that mirrors the findings of this new data is titled “Cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs” and is published in the Harm Reduction Journal. The research project hypothesized that the replacement of one psychoactive substance with another can amplify the success rate of harm reduction efforts.
The study’s authors stated in their report:
“This study examined patient-provider communication patterns concerning cannabis use and substitution in Canada. Results suggest that patients often substitute cannabis for other medications without PCP guidance. The lack of integration between mainstream healthcare and medical cannabis could likely be improved through increased physician education and clinical experience.”
With a safety profile akin to other controlled substances, there’s no reason why cannabis shouldn’t be considered a harm reduction strategy for people who abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Taking this into account, it is unsurprising that Canadians with legal cannabis access are using the plant to help them quit using more harmful substances.
“As legal access continues to expand, one would expect the cannabis substitution effect to grow even more pronounced in the future. Other studies have shown that patients also frequently reduce their consumption of benzodiazepines, sleep aids, and antidepressants following medical cannabis initiation,” they added.
The use of cannabis as a therapeutic and medicinal aid is widely supported. An ever-growing list of research efforts shines a light on the plant’s ability to relieve symptoms and potentially treat widespread medical conditions. Examples include chronic pain, chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, anxiety, depression, and muscle inflammation.
Moving forwards, better physician education and clinical experience could help to improve the integration of medical cannabis into mainstream healthcare.
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