A survey has looked into how Australians use illicit cannabis to treat health conditions

Australians who use illicit cannabis for medical reasons do so mainly to treat mental health issues, chronic pain, and sleep problems.

An anonymous online survey of 1748 participants was conducted in April to October 2016—immediately prior to the 2016 legislation for frameworks for medicinal cannabis use being passed.

Researchers from the University of Sydney found the most frequent reasons for medicinal cannabis use were to treat anxiety (50.7%), back pain (50%), depression (49.3%), and sleep problems (43.5%).

Respondents had used medicinal cannabis an average of 19.9 days of the previous 28 days, and a median of 26 of the preceding 28 days.

They spent an average of $94.50 per week on cannabis, with 83.4% choosing to inhale the substance.

Participants reported high levels of clinical effectiveness, with 71—92% indicating that the treated symptom had very much or much improved.

For the most part, less than 1% of respondents felt that the treated symptom had worsened.

Participants also reported frequent side effects, including increased appetite (74%), drowsiness (67.1%), ocular irritation (40.7%), lethargy (37.5%), memory impairment (31.6%), palpitations (15.4%), and paranoia (15.2%) or confusion (12.4%).

Source: MJA.

Source: MJA.

The high level of clinical effectiveness “may reflect both placebo effects (likely for a psychoactive, consumer-selected product) and sampling bias,” write the authors in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Use of anonymous and convenience sampling introduced bias, as individuals were only eligible to participate if they had access to the internet and were actively using medicinal cannabis, while dissatisfied individuals no longer using medicinal cannabis (due to side effects or poor efficacy, for example) were excluded, the authors point out.

The reported positive outcomes contrast with findings from clinical trials and other investigations of the efficacy of cannabinoids for many of these conditions, they add.

Meanwhile, cannabis use disorder in a moderate or severe form was found in 17% of respondents.

The main sources of cannabis were recreational dealers (46.1%), friends or family (32.4%), own plants (11.3%), medicinal cannabis suppliers (4.9%), online suppliers (2.2%), overseas suppliers (0.3%), clubs or cooperatives (0.3%), a pharmacy (on prescription from a medical professional: one person, 0.1%) and other (2.3%).

Eighty-five percent of respondents reported being worried about being arrested or other legal problems, while 47.4% were concerned about employment security due to medicinal cannabis use.

“As consumer demand for medical cannabis increases, it is important that health providers better understand the reasons for and the patterns of medical cannabis use that will influence requests from their patients,” say the authors.

“While most respondents reported health benefits, side effects were common, and there were also several undesirable consequences of relying on illicit cannabis supplies, including variable product quality, expense, difficult access, and legal and employment problems.

“It remains to be seen how the new legal regulations for prescribed medical cannabis will translate into clinical practice in Australia, and whether consumer demand can be met within an appropriate evidence and safety framework.”

See the full study here