Medical Marijuana and the Tricky Issue of Pain

Medical Marijuana and the Tricky Issue of Pain

A first-of-its-kind study published by the Health Affairs journal in 2019 revealed that the majority of America’s medical cannabis patients use the drug to manage chronic pain. The study further noted that just over 85% use medical marijuana to treat conditions for which there was solid evidence of efficacy. Proponents say the numbers prove people are not using medical marijuana as an excuse to get high.

Unfortunately, the data proves no such thing. It only proves that people report using medical marijuana for legitimate purposes. Yet anyone can report something untruthfully. That reality leads directly to the tricky issue of treating pain.

How big a problem is it?

There are now millions of people utilizing medical marijuana in the U.S. Given that chronic pain is the number one condition listed by users, extemporaneous data should show chronic pain as a major problem. That is actually the case.

A 2016 study from the CDC estimated that some fifty million Americans suffer from chronic pain. That accounts for about 20% of the population. Combining the CDC study with the 2019 medical cannabis study would indicate that everything is on the up-and-up within the medical marijuana arena. But is it?

Here is the reality of chronic pain: there is no way to test for it. Doctors can only gauge chronic pain by what their patients report. They have no means of measuring how severe pain is, how long it lasts, or even whether it exists at all. They can only go on the word of their patients. That’s fine. Doctors should listen to the patients. But not being able to test for pain opens the door to reporting chronic pain that doesn’t really exist.

Does it happen?

To believe that misreporting chronic pain does not happen is also to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. It is the natural state of human affairs to be dishonest. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how often it happens.

Beehive Farmacy is a Utah licensed medical marijuana dispensary with locations in Brigham City and Salt Lake City. Their staff pharmacists also have no idea if the patients they see really do experience chronic pain. They have to base their actions on patient and medical provider reports. Could some of their patients be using medical marijuana for other reasons? Absolutely.

In Utah, insomnia is not a qualifying medical condition. However, plenty of patients privately report that cannabis helps them sleep. It is quite likely that there are at least some Utah users who don’t experience chronic pain, yet they list chronic pain as a qualifying condition so that they can get cannabis products to help them sleep.

What about getting high?

If there are medical marijuana patients who list chronic pain as their qualifying condition because they suffer from something else that doesn’t qualify, it’s reasonable to believe that other patients are using cannabis for non-medical reasons. They obtained their medical cannabis cards solely for the purpose of getting high legally.

Again, there is no way to prove this – or even measure it. The only way we could know for sure was through patient reporting. If you were someone who claimed chronic pain that didn’t really exist, would you willingly report doing so?

None of this is to say that medical marijuana is a bad thing. It’s also not to say that it should remain illegal at the federal level. It is simply to say that the medical marijuana arena is not as clean and white as the driven snow. Like any industry, there are inappropriate activities going on within it.