Cancer Patients Using Cannabis

Written by Tamir Bresler

Number of Cancer Patients Using Cannabis Doubles!

A recent study published in the journal Cancer examined trends in the use of cannabis as well as opioids over a ten-year period, between 2005-2014. [1] Researchers were looking for differences between cancer patients and the general population in terms of their opioid prescription use, cannabis use, and the concomitant use of both substances at once.

The data was collected from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), and responses were aggregated from all respondents ages 20-60 over this time period. This added up to just under 20,000 people. From there, researchers identified 826 respondents with cancer, and matched them with 1,652 respondents without cancer—a 1:2 ratio. The group without cancer was selected from the pool of respondents after matching them as closely as possible to the demographics of the patients with cancer, based on parameters such as age, sex, race, education, and self-reported health status. The total number of participants in the cohort study was therefore 2,478.

Opioid medications in their various forms, sometimes in combination with any of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs, are currently the mainstay therapy in the treatment of cancer-related pain. It is therefore unsurprising that the study by Tringale et al found that cancer patients were much more likely to be taking prescription opioids compared to non-cancer patients. [1] More than twice as likely, in fact. “Prescribed Opioid Use” was defined in this study as having filled an opioid medication prescription in the past thirty days.

Notably, a general increase in the number of patients filling opioid prescriptions occurred between 2005 and 2014, but that increase was statistically equivalent in both the cancer patient and control groups. [1] This means that neither cancer patients nor the general population were more likely than the other to be prescribed opioids at a greater rate at a given period of time. This in itself is significant, because it demonstrates that cancer patients, while more likely to be filling opioid prescriptions, are not filling them at increasing numbers compared to the general population.

However, by far the most striking and notable finding of this study was that the proportion of cancer patients who reported active cannabis use increased by 118% percent over this ten-year period, as compared to the general population whose reported active use only increased by 12%. [1] The use of cannabis in cancer patients had more than doubled!

A previous study, which surveyed patients at a comprehensive cancer center in Washington, demonstrated that the legalization status of cannabis was an important factor for cancer patients in determining whether they will choose to include medicinal cannabis in their care. [2] This rationale could explain the notable rise in cannabis use in cancer patients seen from 2005-2014, which coincided with the rapid proliferation of state-legalization of both medicinal and adult-use cannabis across the United States.

While the study was published this year, it only contained data up to the end of 2014. In the years since then, legalization and decriminalization have proliferated even further, and favorable opinions about the use of cannabis in cancer care have likewise increased. [3] It is our opinion that a similar study, performed currently, will exhibit data showing even further use and acceptance of cannabis as a cancer-related medicinal commodity, by patients and medical providers.


  1. Tringale, Kathryn R. et al. “The role of cancer in marijuana and prescription opioid use in the United States: A population‐based analysis from 2005 to 2014”. Cancer. 2019. (Epub ahead of print) [Times cited = 0, Journal impact factor = 6.072].
  2. Pergam, S.A. et al. “Cannabis use among patients at a comprehensive cancer center in a state with legalized medicinal and recreational use”. Cancer. 2017; 123(22): 4488-4497 [Times cited = 31, Journal impact factor = 6.072].
  3. Powell, D. et al. “Do medical marijuana laws reduce addictions and deaths related to

pain killers?” Journal of Health Economics. 2018; 58: 29–42 [Times cited = 138, Journal impact factor = 2.266].

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Tamir Bresler

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