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Exploring the use of cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs

Background: The use of cannabis as medicine (CaM) both prescribed and non-prescribed has increased markedly in the last decade, mirrored in a global shift in cannabis policy towards a more permissive stance. There is some evidence that cannabis functions as a substitute for prescription drugs, particularly opioids; however, more knowledge is needed on the motives of substitution users, their patterns of use, and perceived effects of substitution use.

Type of prescription drug(s) substituted with CaM (cannabis as medicine)

Aims: To explore who substitutes prescription drugs with cannabis, the type of prescription drugs substituted and the type of cannabis used, and the impact that substitution with cannabis has on prescription drug use as well as the motives for substitution in terms of experienced effects and side effects.

Methods: A self-selected convenience sample was recruited through social media, public media, and patient organizations to take part in an anonymous online survey. Inclusion criteria were 18 years or older and use of cannabis (prescribed or non-prescribed) with a medical purpose.

Results: The final sample included 2.841 respondents of which the majority (91%) used non-prescribed cannabis, and more than half (54.6%) had used CaM with the purpose of replacing a prescribed drug. Compared to non-substitution users, substitution users were more likely to be women and to use CaM in the treatment of chronic pain and other somatic conditions. Pain medication (67.2%), antidepressants (24.5%), and arthritis medication (20.7%) were the most common types of drugs replaced with CaM. Among substitution users, 38.1% reported termination of prescription drug use, and 45.9% a substantial decrease in prescription drug use. The most frequent type of cannabis used as a substitute was CBD-oil (65.2%), followed by 'hash, pot or skunk' (36.6%). More than half (65.8%) found CaM much more effective compared to prescription drugs, and 85.5% that the side effects associated with prescription drug use were much worse compared to use of CaM.

Effects of Cannabis as medicine compared to effects of prescription drugs (PD)

Conclusion: CaM is frequently used as a substitute for prescription drugs, particularly opioids. More research is needed on the long-term consequences of use of CaM, including the impact from low and high THC cannabis products on specific somatic and mental health conditions.

Proportion of types of cannabis used by respondent in each prescription drug category:

Side effects of CaM compared to side effects of prescription drugs (PD):

Effect of substitution with CaM on prescription drug (PD) use:

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