I have learned a few things in my almost half-century of hurtling through space with all of you on this fragile blue-green rock. My most recent enlightenment is that the universe has a way of flipping our certitude on its head. Mental acrobatics requires flexibility, requiring us to bend so we don’t break.
On July 1, Minnesota began allowing clinicians to certify patients for “intractable pain” as a qualifying condition for the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Program. Recall that medical marijuana is a Schedule I drug, and we cannot prescribe it. These programs are set up in such a way that the only role a clinician plays is to certify patients with qualifying conditions. This allows a patient to pay a registration fee and visit a cannabis patient center, where a pharmacist will recommend cannabis dose and type.
Months before this, I was waxing professorial about our lack of certainty about dosing and efficacy of medical marijuana. Then I met a 30-year-old with chronic back pain.
She had been evaluated by every subspecialist. This patient was taking and failing supertherapeutic doses of NSAIDs, acetaminophen, and gabapentin. No more surgical options existed. She had been removed from opioid contracts for aberrant behavior. She had had a hysterectomy for severe bleeding. She was in pain and asking for help.
She relates to you that street marijuana has helped with the pain, but she is worried about being arrested and losing her job. Do we put her on another opioid contract? Do we throw up our hands in defeat, apologize, and show her the door?
Serendipitously, I ran across a study evaluating the relationship between cannabis use over a 20-year period and health conditions. The study by Madeline Meier, Ph.D., and her colleagues evaluated 1,037 New Zealanders followed into their late 30s. Laboratory measures were available, and tobacco use was determined (JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Jul 1;73:731-40).
Cannabis was associated with poorer periodontal health, but with no other health conditions in early midlife. In contrast, tobacco use was associated with significant adverse health consequences in multiple domains.
This study looked at smoked cannabis. In contrast, the cannabis that my patient would take is an oil, negating any potential respiratory health issues from by-products of burning. Furthermore, products with higher concentrations of or consisting exclusively of cannabidiol can be selected. Cannabidiol is proposed to possess health benefits and is not psychoactive.
As the opioid crisis rages, solutions are not readily presenting themselves. Will we be on the wrong side of medical history by providing patients with chronic pain access to medical marijuana? Perhaps we can avoid, at least for a short time, the all-too inevitable outcome of chronic pain patients in their 30s: ever-increasing opioid doses with the same amount of pain, frequent emergency department visits, a fractured patient-physician relationship, and drug overdose.
For our patients’ sake, I hope we can bend before we break.
Dr. Ebbert is professor of medicine, a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Mayo Clinic. The opinions expressed in this article should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition nor should they be used as a substitute for medical advice from a qualified, board-certified practicing clinician. Dr. Ebbert has no relevant financial disclosures about this article.