Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D.

By Daniel Casciato

People have been using cannabis products to treat many types of ailments. But are there any medical benefits of cannabis? Do medical cannabis users have any perceived or actual health benefits? 

That’s what Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers and colleagues at Realm of Caring Foundation wanted to discover. They recently surveyed medical cannabis users and found that they reported less pain, better sleep and reduced anxiety, along with taking fewer prescription medications. They also were less likely to have visited an emergency room or have been admitted to a hospital than people who didn’t use cannabis for medical purposes.

In their study, published online on June 8, 2020, in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, the researchers report that because this early work shows medical benefits for cannabis, more funding and clinical trials are urgently needed to determine what conditions the drug may treat. 

“This is an area where there is intense need for science,” Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Millions of people are using cannabis for therapeutic purposes despite a lack of data regarding safety or efficacy. We are interested in putting some data behind the myriad claims made by both proponents and opponents of medicinal cannabis.”

More than 800 medical cannabis users and more than 460 people not using the drug medically were surveyed in this study. From the data, the researchers found that the medical cannabis users reported about an 8% better quality of life on average, along with an approximately 9% reduction in pain scores and a 12% reduction in anxiety scores.

When it came to health care resources, compared with nonusers, medical cannabis users reported using 14% fewer prescription medications, and that they were 39% less likely to have visited an emergency room and 46% less likely to have been admitted to a hospital in the month before being surveyed.

“The most surprising outcome was that cannabis users reported significantly fewer ER visits and hospitalizations compared with controls,” says Dr. Vandrey.

The key takeaways in his mind were that cannabis use was generally associated with better health and quality of life outcomes, and less healthcare utilization. 

“Though I was skeptical of these outcomes at first, the fact that we saw the same changes within the same individuals over time if they newly initiated or stopped medicinal use of cannabis suggests that these are valid effects,” he says. “All that said, this is far from a placebo-controlled clinical trial. Additional research with specific cannabis products use for targeted health conditions is still needed to fully demonstrate the safety and efficacy of cannabis as a therapeutic for most health problems for which cannabis is believed to be helpful.”

As more states begin to legalize cannabis as a therapeutic, Dr. Vandrey says that there is an obligation for those states to measure the impact of those medical cannabis programs. 

“Too few states are actually funding research to evaluate how these programs are impacting the individuals accessing cannabis,” he says. 

His team next plans to look at the effects of medical cannabis on epilepsy, anxiety and autism in future studies.

“I am currently involved in a lot of studies that are relevant to this topic,” he explains. “We are continuing to collect data in this study, and our hope is that we can get larger sample sizes to enable us to evaluate health outcomes for individual health conditions, and specific types of cannabis products such as high THC versus high CBD products. We are also conducting laboratory studies to determine how route of administration, dose, chemotype, and formulation impacts drug effects, measuring the interactions between cannabis and other medications, and studying the interaction between cannabinoids and terpenes.”

For more information, visit www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/ and search for Medical Cannabis Consumers Use Less Healthcare.