Like the U.S., South Africa doesn’t officially recognize any cannabis-based medications for pain relief. That may change in the future thanks to a new medical cannabis study kicking off at the Cannabis Research Institute of South Africa (CRI).
The study has a dual purpose: to measure both marijuana’s ability to treat opioid addiction and its efficacy as a pain reliever. The thinking is that a positive result in the pain relief department will help South Africa address its opioid problem by giving doctors and patients another choice for pain medication.
Addressing the opioid crisis through medical cannabis is not a new idea. It is also not limited to South Africa. The concept has been proposed many times by advocates the world over. Unfortunately, government attitudes toward cannabis have prevented large-scale research to date. The lack of research is the only thing holding back a genuine effort to get people off opioids by transitioning them to cannabis.
Chronic Pain in South Africa
Chronic pain is defined differently by governing bodies. In South Africa, it is generally defined as pain lasting longer than six months. Here in the U.S., the amount of time pain needs to persist before it is considered chronic ranges anywhere from 30 to 180 days.
Either way, South African doctors rely on many of the same medications our own doctors prescribe. Options include opioids like codeine, morphine, and oxycodone. They see the same potential side effects and risks.
The big problem with opioid pain relievers is that patients quickly develop tolerance. That means larger doses are required to experience the same level of pain relief. This is what leads to opioid addiction. But constantly consuming higher doses of opioids also leads to dangerous side effects that could ultimately lead to death.
Chronic Pain in the U.S.
Chronic pain is also a problem here. Millions of people deal with it, and the vast majority of consumers who use medical cannabis do so for pain management reasons. According to doctors associated with Utahmarijuana.org, most medical cannabis patients claim chronic pain treatment as their number one qualifying condition during initial medical cannabis consultations.
Utah’s list of qualifying medical conditions is fairly expensive. It includes seizure disorders, cancer, and PTSD. But despite dozens of conditions for which a medical cannabis can be recommended, chronic pain tops the list.
The Anecdotal Evidence Is There
Medical science lacks the necessary data to make any conclusive decisions about cannabis as a pain reliever. Yet the anecdotal evidence is there. The mere fact that millions of people now use cannabis as a pain treatment means it either works or the majority of them are using it as an excuse to get their hands on marijuana.
Opinions will vary on that particular topic, of course. But there is enough anecdotal evidence to warrant as much study as possible. South African researchers have decided to do just that. Back home, there is no shortage of researchers who want to conduct similar studies but still find themselves hamstrung by federal law.
The Opioid Crisis as Justification
Despite so much support for medical cannabis both here and abroad, there are some who take issue with using the opioid crisis as justification for pushing medical cannabis. They make a point worth considering: are we really doing right by patients by substituting one psychotropic drug for another?
While politicians and advocates on both sides of the issue debate ethics, researchers in South Africa will spend the next year studying cannabis as a pain reliever. They will look at all the data and hopefully render a conclusion consistent with it. The world awaits the results.