Offering an Alternative to Persons with Chronic Pain: How Access to Cannabis May Provide an Off-Ramp from Undesired Prescription Opioid Use

Julie Bobbitt, Hyojung Kang, Kanika Arora, Divya Bhagianadh, Gary Milavetz, Brian Kaskie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background. Chronic pain (CP) is experienced by as many as 50 million Americans and can negatively impact physical and mental health. Prescribing opioids is the most common approach to address moderate to severe CP though these potent analgesics are associated with a significant number of side effects. One alternative some Americans are turning to for CP management is cannabis. In addition to serving as an alternative, many individuals with CP use cannabis in addition to using prescription opioids. This study examined individuals with CP who enrolled in the state of Illinois’ opioid diversion program, the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program (OAPP), which offers individuals aged 21 and older a separate pathway to access medical cannabis if they have or could receive a prescription for opioids as certified by a licensed physician. Methods. Cross-sectional survey data were collected from 450 participants. We described participants and compared those who use only cannabis with those who use cannabis and opioids. Results. While 16% of the respondents were cannabis-only users, 84% of the respondents were co-users of opioids and cannabis. Both groups considered opioid use risky (100% cannabis-only, 89% co-users,). The majority (73%) of respondents sought to completely stop or never start using opioids for CP. Cannabis-only users reported lower levels of pain compared to co-users. Co-users (85%) were more likely to have their routine provider as a cannabis certifying physician than cannabis-only users (69%). Conclusion. With increasing clinical evidence, legalization and acceptance, researchers should continue to examine how cannabis may be a viable alternative to reduce the risk of prescription opioid side effects, misuse, or dependence. Our findings also inform health care providers and state policymakers who increasingly are being asked to consider how cannabis may reduce the potential for harmful outcomes among persons with CP who use prescription opioids.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 5 2023


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