hand holding a cannabis leaf

Can Marijuana Reduce Opioid Use for Colorectal Cancer?


  • Researchers think medical marijuana may be a viable alternative to opioid use for colorectal cancer.  
  • Doctors and cancer patients have been turning to medical marijuana for pain management despite the scant evidence.
  • Although the causality is not proven, the legalization of marijuana may have caused a dip in opioid use among cancer patients.
  • Colorectal cancer screening tests can help you detect the disease early. 

In 2010, 21,088 people died from opioid overdoses. By 2020, that number had more than tripled to 68,630 deaths.

Doctors prescribe opioids to help cancer patients manage pain as well as the side effects of cancer treatments, and opioid use for cancer has been trending upward. Using opioids to manage pain in cancer patients may have contributed to the opioid epidemic currently ravaging the population.

Evidence exists that medical marijuana may be an alternative to opioids in cancer pain and treatment side effect management. The medical community is aware of the potential of medical marijuana for treating cancer pain, but questions remain.

Opioid Use for Colorectal Cancer Pain Management

Pain management is an integral part of comprehensive cancer care.

Pain is a frequent side effect of the disease and the treatments doctors use to suppress it. Approximately 60% of cancer patients suffer from moderate or severe chronic pain. Long-lasting pain is a frequent side effect of chemical and radiation treatments.

Even after surviving cancer, pain remains a problem for many people. One in three survivors report chronic pain, and for 16% of cancer survivors, pain severely interferes with daily life.

Doctors must address the pain, and opioids are among their first options.

We know how opioids can help patients manage the pain of the disease and the treatments. But we know little about how opioids impact the lives of patients who go on to become survivors.

According to a 2019 study, opioid use for colon cancer doesn’t normally entail high doses. That said, researchers concluded that a colon cancer diagnosis does increase opioid use, exposing patients to the dangers of these drugs.

Long-term opioid use opens the door to many potential problems, like overdosing, abuse, addiction, and cardiovascular problems.

Opioids may even hike the risk of colon cancer. Colorectal cancer survivors who develop an addiction and continue using opioids may contribute to the recurrence of the disease.

The Potential Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Colorectal Cancer Patients

Colorectal cancer patients and the medical community are aware of the dangers of opioid use for colon cancer. They also know about the alternative pain management path medical marijuana may offer.

About one-quarter of cancer patients have tried medical marijuana for pain management. Many have found that it helps with many side effects of cancer treatments.

In addition to pain, medical marijuana may also alleviate nausea and anorexia, two of the most common side effects of cancer and its treatment.

Many doctors recommend medical marijuana for pain management.

Almost half of U.S. oncologists recommend marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain management. However, many doctors agree that they’d like more studies and improvements in the quality of marijuana research before wholeheartedly embracing its benefits.

Medical Marijuana May Reduce Opioid Use in Colon Cancer Patients

A 2022 study attempted to find links between the 2012 legalization of marijuana in some U.S. states and the use of opioids for cancer-related pain.

Researchers looked at the records of thousands of cancer patients, among them colorectal cancer patients. They established that during the 2012-2017 period, opioid dispensing dropped by 5.5% to 19.2%.

Looking at the patient categories by cancer type, researchers found that patients in every category consumed fewer opioids during the study period due to the legalization of medical marijuana.

The number of colorectal cancer patients resorting to opioids dropped from 89.4 percent to 84.4 percent. The drop was similarly significant in every patient category.

The study wrapped up by recommending further investigation of the causality between the opioid usage drop and medical marijuana availability.

The Problems With Marijuana Research

The 2022 study has some limitations. The authors looked at patient records and tried to establish causality. No scientifically designed, randomized trials were included. The study didn’t attempt to establish how medical marijuana impacts cancer and cancer treatment symptoms, and it didn’t consider the route of administration of medical marijuana.

Before they can recommend medical marijuana as an alternative to the current gold standard of cancer pain treatment, doctors need scientific proof. They must understand whether topical, oral, or sublingual medical marijuana is the best treatment approach.

It should also be noted that the drop in opioid consumption happened to coincide with restrictions that anti-opioid epidemic measures have brought about. Some patients may have taken fewer opioids because they found them more difficult to get.

Furthermore, the studies that have thus far explored the use of medical marijuana as an opioid alternative for colon cancer haven’t considered the safety of marijuana. Does it have severe side effects?

Potential Side Effects of Medical Marijuana on Colorectal Cancer Patients

Medical marijuana has some well-known side effects, like increased heart rate and respiratory problems.

Marijuana’s better-known side effects include cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. More frequent in long-term users, this side effect manifests as intense nausea and vomiting.

Marijuana can cause some severe side effects.

In rare cases, the vomiting can grow so intense that it can lead to dehydration and require medical attention. Nausea and vomiting can become regular and cyclical, severely impacting the quality of life of marijuana users.

Doctors don’t understand how cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome works. Normally, marijuana soothes nausea and prevents vomiting. This side effect is somewhat paradoxical, but it’s real. And it can be devastating for someone who’s using marijuana  to escape cancer treatment nausea.

Other side effects of marijuana include:

  • Mood swings
  • Temporary hallucinations
  • Memory impairment
  • Delusions
  • Temporary paranoia
  • Altered perception

Marijuana may also cause addiction and suicidal thoughts in some users. What’s more, it’s not legal in all U.S. states.


Medical marijuana is slowly gaining acceptance as an adjunct to opioids in cancer pain management and even as an alternative to opioids. That said, solid evidence backing its efficacy is scant at this time.

Some studies claim a correlation between reduced opioid consumption and better medical marijuana availability but fail to establish clear causality.

Other studies have found that medical marijuana does not alleviate cancer pain in patients who do not respond to opioids.

Doctors and researchers recommend further investigation into the effectiveness of marijuana as a pain management solution and its viability as an alternative to opioids.

Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis and Prevention

An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. With colorectal cancer, prevention can eliminate the need for pain management solutions like opioids.

Colorectal cancer screening tests allow doctors to detect the early signs of colon cancer in patients. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends colorectal cancer screening for adults between 45 and 75.

Early colorectal cancer detection allows doctors to treat the disease, causing minimum discomfort to patients. Treatments are more effective in early colon cancer.

eDrugstore Can Help

You can order a colorectal cancer screening test that only requires a stool sample. Our colorectal cancer screening tests are pain-free. You will have your results back in two to five days. If your results are positive, we’ll provide a free consultation with a U.S.-licensed doctor to discuss your next steps.

Early testing reduces colorectal cancer risk. Order your test today.

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