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Illicit cannabis used for pain, mental health, sleep conditions

14 August 2018
New MJA paper shows patterns of cannabis self-medication
Australians who used illicit cannabis for medical reasons did so mainly to treat chronic pain, mental health, sleep and neurological conditions like epilepsy or seizure disorders, according to University of Sydney research.

A survey of 1,744 Australians funded by the University of Sydney's Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics used a cross-sectional online survey of individuals self-reporting the use of cannabis for therapeutic reasons within 12 months.

The conditions for which participants reported using cannabis were most commonly back pain, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, arthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most people were smoking their cannabis either through bongs (42 percent) or joints (20 percent), although most people indicated they would prefer using safer approaches, such as oral or vaporised routes.

Overall, participants reported that their cannabis use had been effective in helping them manage their health conditions.

However, a range of side effects were also identified, including increased appetite, drowsiness, eye irritation, lethargy and memory impairment. While almost half the group reported some discomfort (e.g. transient sleep problems) when trying to stop their medical cannabis use, only a minority (less than 20 percent) met criteria for dependence to cannabis.

Participants also reported concerns about the illegal status of their cannabis use, citing concerns about employment, irregular access and highly variable quality of cannabis accessed illegally.

Most respondents expressed a strong preferences or medical cannabis to be integrated into mainstream health care, and for products to meet quality and safety standards.

The Cannabis As Medicine Survey 2016 (CAMs:16) results were published yesterday in the Medical Journal of Australia.

The study was conducted immediately before the implementation of new regulations in October 2016 and represents a ‘before’ snapshot of medical cannabis use in Australia.

The research team will be repeating the online survey (CAMS:18) in coming weeks to look at how patterns of use have changed since the new regulations have taken effect.  

The study’s lead author, Professor Nicholas Lintzeris at Sydney Medical School, said unequivocal evidence about the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis for many health conditions was still lacking.

“While recent reviews indicate that certain cannabis products are effective for some patients with pain, sleep problems, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and spasticity in multiple sclerosis, clinical trial-based evidence is still emerging for many of the conditions for which medical cannabis was used for in this study, such as anxiety, depression or PTSD,” he said.

Study co-author and academic director of the Lambert Initiative at the Brain and Mind Centre, Professor Iain McGregor, stated that only about 1,000 people are accessing legally prescribed cannabis-based medicines through approved systems. However, there may be up to 100,000 or more Australians self-medicating with illicit cannabis for therapeutic purposes.  

“Our CAMS:16 study gives a unique insight into the world of illicit medicinal cannabis use in Australia,” said Professor McGregor, from the School of Psychology.

The survey was conducted immediately before the opening up of regulations allowing medical cannabis to be prescribed in Australia.

Vivienne Reiner

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