“We have given marijuana the status of medicine with none of the standards,” said one medical official.
As more and more patients turn to cannabis for pain relief in hopes of avoiding opioids, many doctors remain skeptical about what they see as an unproven and unregulated substance taking the place of a proven medication.
“We have given marijuana the status of medicine with none of the standards,” Stanford University psychiatrist Keith Humphreys told Pew Trusts.
New York, Illinois and Colorado now allow physicians to recommend cannabis instead of opioids for pain relief, while other states allow people with opioid use disorder to access a medical marijuana card.
Proponents of these measures, including Colorado Rep. Edie Hooton, say that there are few risks to cannabis, while opioids can be deadly.
“We’re talking about an alternative to managing symptoms to a narcotic, or to a pharmaceutical with severe side effects,” Hooton said.
Opponents Speak Out
However, medical professionals aren’t convinced. In Colorado, fewer than 2% of doctors have recommended cannabis to patients. Some doctors, like pain specialist Ken Finn, say the policy is foolish.
Finn said that the new bill is “the worst policy I’ve ever seen,” and that the interest in it “tells me what lengths people will go to to try to get some relief.”
Ziva Cooper, research director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, said that studies have shown that cannabis has promise as a pain reliever. However, most of those studies were done using specific compounds in tightly-regulated circumstances.
In addition, most of the study participants were on other pain medications, too. The results may be less predictable with bud from dispensaries.
Cooper said, “We don’t know yet how effective cannabis and cannabinoids are for pain when they’re administered by themselves. We also don’t know how cannabis and cannabinoids stack up next to opioids for pain relief.”
Cooper added that powerful personal stories can sway lawmakers and public opinion, but they do little to prove the effectiveness of cannabis scientifically.
“It’s more based on anecdotes—people reporting that they can wean themselves off opioids,” Cooper said.
Robert Valuck, executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, said that the benefits of cannabis haven’t been proven to outweigh the risks.
“The science is thin,” he said. “We’re seeing increases in what people call cannabis use disorder.”
Many doctors, including Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Jennifer Hagman, cannabis has not yet been proven as good medicine.
“There’s no condition right now where I feel there’s enough information for me to recommend marijuana to a family for a child or an adolescent,” she said.