Effect of cannabis use in people with chronic non-cancer pain prescribed Opioids: findings from a 4-year prospective cohort study

Gabrielle Campbell, PhD'
Correspondence information about the author PhD Gabrielle Campbell
Wayne D Hall, PhD, Amy Peacock, PhD, Nicholas Lintzeris, MD, Raimondo Bruno, PhD, Briony Larance, PhD, Suzanne Nielsen, PhD, Milton Cohen, MD, Gary Chan, PhD, Richard P Mattick, PhD, Fiona Blyth, PhD, Marian Shanahan, PhD, Timothy Dobbins, PhD, Michael Farrell, MD, Louisa Degenhardt, PhD


Interest in the use of cannabis and cannabinoids to treat chronic non-cancer pain is increasing, because of their potential to reduce opioid dose requirements. We aimed to investigate cannabis use in people living with chronic non-cancer pain who had been prescribed opioids, including their reasons for use and perceived effectiveness of cannabis; associations between amount of cannabis use and pain, mental health, and opioid use; the effect of cannabis use on pain severity and interference over time; and potential opioid-sparing effects of cannabis.


The use of prescribed opioids in the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain is controversial because of insufficient evidence for their long-term effectiveness and increased harms as opioid prescribing for chronic non-cancer pain has increased.

Alternatives to opioids are increasingly being debated and considered. Reviews of cannabinoids suggest they might have efficacy in some chronic non-cancer pain conditions. In the USA, Canada, and the Netherlands, chronic non-cancer pain is the most commonly cited reason for use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Furthermore, there is increasing discussion about the potential opioid-sparing effects of cannabinoids. Changes in regulations mean that there could be an increase in the use of cannabinoid products for chronic non-cancer pain.


The Pain and Opioids IN Treatment study is a prospective, national, observational cohort of people with chronic non-cancer pain prescribed opioids. Participants were recruited through community pharmacies across Australia, completed baseline interviews, and were followed up with phone interviews or self-completed questionnaires yearly for 4 years. Recruitment took place from August 13, 2012, to April 8, 2014. Participants were asked about lifetime and past year chronic pain conditions, duration of chronic non-cancer pain, pain self-efficacy, whether pain was neuropathic, lifetime and past 12-month cannabis use, the number of days cannabis was used in the past month, and current depression and generalized anxiety disorder. We also estimated daily oral morphine equivalent doses of opioids. We used logistic regression to investigate cross-sectional associations with frequency of cannabis use, and lagged mixed-effects models to examine temporal associations between cannabis use and outcomes.


1514 participants completed the baseline interview and were included in the study from Aug 20, 2012, to April 14, 2014. Cannabis use was common, and by 4-year follow-up, 295 (24%) participants had used cannabis for pain. Interest in using cannabis for pain increased from 364 (33%) participants (at baseline) to 723 (60%) participants (at 4 years). At 4-year follow-up, compared with people with no cannabis use, we found that participants who used cannabis had a greater pain severity score (risk ratio 1·14, 95% CI 1·01–1·29, for less frequent cannabis use; and 1·17, 1·03–1·32, for daily or near-daily cannabis use), greater pain interference score (1·21, 1·09–1·35; and 1·14, 1·03–1·26), lower pain self-efficacy scores (0·97, 0·96–1·00; and 0·98, 0·96–1·00), and greater generalised anxiety disorder severity scores (1·07, 1·03–1·12; and 1·10, 1·06–1·15). We found no evidence of a temporal relationship between cannabis use and pain severity or pain interference, and no evidence that cannabis use reduced prescribed opioid use or increased rates of opioid discontinuation.


Cannabis use was common in people with chronic non-cancer pain who had been prescribed opioids, but we found no evidence that cannabis use improved patient outcomes. People who used cannabis had greater pain and lower self-efficacy in managing pain, and there was no evidence that cannabis use reduced pain severity or interference or exerted an opioid-sparing effect. As cannabis use for medicinal purposes increases globally, it is important that large well designed clinical trials, which include people with complex comorbidities, are conducted to determine the efficacy of cannabis for chronic non-cancer pain.


National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Government.