Cannabis is legal for medicinal use in 33 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, but to get it, a license (more commonly known as a medical marijuana card) is needed, and that license requires the doctor who prescribed medical cannabis to certify that the patient has a legitimate health condition that qualifies for marijuana treatment. This much is relatively well known, but what is less clear — to most people – is what exactly qualifies as a “legitimate health condition.”
This can vary significantly from state to state — in various places, cannabis can be prescribed for conditions like anxiety, cancer, chronic pain, dementia, depression, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, insomnia and sleep issues, muscular sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, seizures, or extreme stress. Some states have relatively loose medical marijuana laws that allow it to be prescribed for many health conditions, while others restrict it to only those deemed most serious.
So what’s the most common reason people are prescribed medical cannabis? This has been the subject of heated debate for years, but it looks like there might finally be a clear answer.
According to a 2019 study from the University of Michigan spanning 15 states, chronic pain is the most common reason for getting a medical marijuana card. The study found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of patients cited the condition as a reason for seeking medical cannabis. It should be noted that patients could list more than one condition, so it’s likely that many respondents also had other issues to address. Some of the most common ones were multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Writing in the science journal Health Affairs, the study’s authors suggested that the frequency of medical cannabis prescriptions for chronic pain tracks with both the high number of people in the U.S. who suffer from the condition, and the science confirming the positive impact of cannabis as an effective pain treatment. According to estimated figures released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2018, just over 20 percent of Americans — 50 million — suffer from some type of chronic pain issue, and often more than one.
The University of Michigan researchers stated that while there are no clinical guidelines for the medical use of marijuana as a treatment for various health issues as there are with prescription medications (since cannabis is not federally legal, despite the efforts of bipartisan lawmakers), people are clearly seeking out medical cannabis for conditions where there is valid scientific evidence that such a treatment could be effective. They concluded this after looking at how often the cannabis uses were evidence-based, and found that 86 percent of the time there was strong scientific proof of positive results for taking cannabis for the uses reported.
In the words of the study’s lead author Kevin Boehnke, “The vast majority of conditions for which people use cannabis have substantial or conclusive evidence of cannabis being an effective treatment.”
While it’s unlikely that the findings of a single study, no matter how exhaustive or conclusive, will persuade cannabis skeptics that the plant has valid medicinal purposes, it does illustrate that one of the most common arguments against medical cannabis — i.e. that huge numbers of people might seek it out for frivolous purposes — appears to be inaccurate. As the plant becomes more widely available in the United States (and research into its therapeutic qualities becomes less restricted), having a cannabis prescription may soon seem like nothing special.