Pain, anxiety prompt cannabis use

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A ground-breaking nationwide study into Kiwis’ informal use of cannabis for medicinal purposes is already yielding fascinating results.

These include that the average user of medicinal cannabis is “a 36-year-old Pakeha woman”, and that the vast majority of people using the drug for therapeutic purposes do so to help with pain conditions, or anxiety and depression.

New Zealand’s first national survey of medicinal cannabis use is being led by Dunedin-based independent researcher and medical anthropologist Dr Geoff Noller, who says now is “an exciting time for researchers”.

“With the Government’s moves towards changing the rules around medicinal cannabis, and next year’s referendum [on legalising recreational cannabis], there is a lot of research to be done,” he said.

Sponsored by patient advocacy group Medicinal Cannabis Awareness New Zealand, the anonymous online survey has been running for the past three months, and ends on July 31.

Adapted from a successful Australian survey, published last year, the study has ethical approval from the national Health and Disabilities Ethics Committee.

So far, more than 2800 people have completed the strictly confidential survey, answering 47 questions about wide-ranging aspects of their lives, from their work lives to health issues, their relationship with health practitioners, and whether they use cannabis recreationally.

While in-depth analysis of the responses was yet to begin, Dr Noller said preliminary results of the survey were already showing interesting trends and topics for further discussion.

About 7% of the survey respondents were from Otago, while 15% were Maori, and more women than men were identifying that they used medicinal cannabis, Dr Noller said.

“That’s very interesting, because in typical drug-using populations, you usually see more males than females – at a ratio of two-thirds to one-third,” he said.

The median age was 36 years.

“So, essentially, the average user of medicinal cannabis is a 36-year-old Pakeha woman,” Dr Noller said.

The most predominant use of medicinal cannabis was in relation to the “complex phenomenon” of pain, followed by anxiety and depression.

“And well over half of the respondents identified that they had ceased use of pharmaceutical medicines, or had reduced them significantly through use of medicinal cannabis.”

Although some participants reported that their health professionals were “strongly against” cannabis being used therapeutically, more reported that they were supported in their choice to use cannabis, with GPs being most supportive.

Interestingly, when people raised questions about medicinal cannabis with their health professional, 40% were given no information, Dr Noller said.

“This could be an area for further discussion, around the need for physicians to be able to have an informed conversation with their patients.”

While about half of respondents had used cannabis recreationally in the past year, half had not, and 20% had never used cannabis recreationally, he said.

And well over 50% of respondents were in either full-time or part-time work, and receiving the median wage.

“This shows that what we are talking about here are everyday New Zealanders,” Dr Noller said.

The study has garnered significant interest already, with the Australian researchers expressing an interest in combining data from the Australian and New Zealand studies for future publications.

Dr Noller encouraged people who used cannabis therapeutically to add their voices to the survey, if they had not already done so.

The survey link is www.research.net/r/MCPatientsSurvey2019