As medical cannabis grows in popularity and legalization spreads, some obvious questions arise. These questions are spurred on by growing evidence that opiate use decreases in states with legal access to medical cannabis. Just how effective is medical cannabis? Can it replace prescription medications? A team of researchers surveyed cannabis users to find out how they were using the herbal remedy in relation to pharmaceutical drugs.
Are Cannabis Users Substituting Cannabis for Prescription Drugs?
These researchers surveyed cannabis users to get a sense of whether they were using cannabis medicinally to replace pharmaceutical drugs. The survey was inspired by increasing evidence that legalizing medical cannabis leads to less opiate abuse and death. 
The vast majority of survey respondents were from the United States, and of those, more the 86% were Caucasian. Slightly more males were surveyed than females, at 55% to 44%. Of the total 2,774 people surveyed, 1,248, or roughly 46%, reported using cannabis medically in place of a pharmaceutical drug.
The survey specifically looked at people using cannabis to treat pain, anxiety, and depression, since these are three of the most common uses of medical cannabis. The study found that the majority of people that reported replacing a pharmaceutical with cannabis were replacing an opioid or narcotic, at 36%. The researchers speculated that the fear of opiate dependence and the widespread reporting of the opiate crisis may have contributed to cannabis users looking for a safer alternative. 
The researchers also found that 14% of people surveyed used cannabis in place of anxiety medications, and 13% were substituting cannabis for antidepressants. These shouldn’t be surprising considering how common both anxiety and depression are and the fact that cannabis is commonly used to treat anxiety disorders. Cannabis has long been associated with positive emotions and overall relaxation, making it an obvious choice for people seeking relief from anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, the research team also found a fair degree of overlap. They found that people were 1.5 times more likely to treat two or more conditions with cannabis than to use it for only one. So, if someone is using cannabis to treat pain, anxiety, or depression, they are more likely to use cannabis as a replacement for prescription medication for one of the other conditions.
Who is Substituting Cannabis?
The study also aimed to find any patterns regarding which people were willing to use cannabis in place of pharmaceutical drugs. They found a couple of interesting trends, including the fact that females were more likely than males to substitute cannabis.
The results also suggest that Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders are more likely to use cannabis medically in place of pharmaceuticals than Caucasians. Canadians were more likely than Americans, but Americans were more apt than Europeans. Finally, the researchers found that the older the people surveyed were, the more likely they were to use cannabis as a substitute for pharmaceuticals. There was a steady increase up to age 65, but there was no data for people over 65.
Interestingly, there was no correlation between state legalization and the use of cannabis to replace prescription drugs. People in prohibition states were nearly as likely as people in legal states to turn to cannabis.
All of this paints an interesting picture of the groups of people most likely to use cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs. More research clearly needs to be done, but it’s clear that people see cannabis as a beneficent alternative.
1- Corroon JM Jr, Mischley LK, Sexton M. Cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs – a cross-sectional study. J Pain Res. 2017;10:989-998. Published 2017 May 2. doi:10.2147/JPR.S134330 [journal impact factor = 2.832; times cited = 122]