As Canada struggles to reduce the number of people addicted to and overdosing on opioids, some doctors say cannabis may be part of the solution.
They are finding it can replace or reduce the use of pharmaceutical painkillers.
“Can cannabis be used to help manage patients who are currently taking opioids? Broadly, the answer is yes,” says Dr. Alan Bell, a family physician, clinical researcher and professor at the University of Toronto. “Cannabinoids are far safer than opioids, there is no doubt about that. No one has died from a cannabinoid overdose.”
Cannabis can be helpful for patients who don’t respond to opioids or who can’t tolerate their side effects, said Bell. It can help relieve not only pain, but also anxiety or sleep disturbances associated with pain, he said. The Canadian Pain Society guidelines list cannabis as a third option, after patients have tried both non-opioid and opioid drugs, he notes. However, given their safety and effectiveness, in some cases cannabinoids should be considered first, he said.
Medical governing bodies, however, are lukewarm on cannabis because there is limited clinical evidence on its benefits, proper dosages and side effects.
Doctors have been advised to proceed cautiously by the Canadian Medical Association. People suffering from terminal illness or chronic disease, who have not been helped by conventional therapies, “may obtain relief” from medical marijuana, says the CMA says in a statement.