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Researchers asked 1,000 adult-use cannabis consumers at two Colorado dispensaries what they use cannabis for, and a new study has found residents are self-medicating with recreational marijuana.

 Among consumers surveyed, 65% use it to relieve pain and 74% use it for better sleep. A majority of those surveyed claimed it helped them reduce the use of other medications. 

“Our motivation for conducting this study was that there are numerous anecdotal reports of people getting help for insomnia, pain, and a variety of other conditions from cannabis purchased from adult-use dispensaries,” said Julia Arnsten, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and one of the authors of the study. 

Arnsten said they expected that consumers were not just purchasing cannabis to get high, but also were actually largely using cannabis for medical purposes. She said one of the possible positive findings from this study is that people were able to stop using other medications that may have harmful side effects, such as opioids. Previous research has indicated that opioid use goes down in states that legalize cannabis

“The potential negative effects are that people may choose cannabis rather than seeking medical attention, or that people may develop dependence on cannabis,” Arnsten said.

When people are self-medicating, they're not necessarily discussing their health issues with their doctor, which might mean they're not getting the best results they could be getting. Arnsten said it's important that people are communicating with their doctor when they need treatment for a particular medical issue.

“Overall, it is crucial that people communicate with their primary care providers to help them make choices that enhance their health and well-being,” Arnsten said.

Research does indicate cannabis is effective for treating pain and for aiding sleep. The National Academies of Sciences said in a report from 2017 that cannabis seems to help with pain treatment. A study from 2018 found cannabis is effective for treating insomnia in most people.

David Mangone, director of governmental affairs at Americans for Safe Access, told Weedmaps News that he believes it is a national trend that people are purchasing adult-use cannabis for medical purposes, possibly because of the effort and cost required for medical marijuana registration. 

“The reason we're seeing this happen frequently is a lot of patients are fed up with the bureaucracy and often the fees that are associated with maintaining a patient registry card,” Mangone said. “With some of these registry cards, you see them go upwards of $200 annually.”

Unlike pharmaceuticals, medical marijuana is not covered by health insurance, so the patient ends up bearing the entire cost of their treatment. Mangone said it would be beneficial if lawmakers could persuade private insurance companies to cover medical cannabis costs.

Mangone said limitations in qualifying conditions may be another incentive for potential patients to instead stay in the adult-use market. Many states' lists of qualifying conditions may exclude particular health concerns that respond well to cannabis, effectively shutting out some patients, according to Mangone. “I think it'd be helpful if states all moved towards the model that allows physicians to decide what conditions are appropriate, rather than lawmakers,” Mangone said.

Patients who need medical cannabis but remain in the adult-use market might not get the products that are best suited to treat their ailments. Some adult-use products aren't always aligned with medical patients' needs.

“The recreational market trends towards products that have much higher THC content,” Mangone said. “Some medical patients need more balanced ratios of CBD and THC or CBN and THC. Some of those products aren't as prevalent when adult-use retailers take over because the products with the higher THC content have a wider market appeal.”

If insurance won't cover cannabis as medicine, and if acquiring a medical card remains burdensome, Mangone said it's likely people will continue to go through the adult-use market in states that have legal marijuana. In states that have only medical marijuana, he said it's likely many people will utilize the illicit market to cut costs. Mangone said it's important that lawmakers start making changes in cannabis policy so people can get their medicine through the proper channels.

Feature image: Adult-use patrons of dispensaries may be seeking to self medicate with marijuana to aid sleep and pain, according to results from a study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. (Photo via Shutterstock