November 30, 2021

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Why Chronic Pain Is Medical Marijuana’s Achilles’ Heel

Utah is similar to most other Medical Cannabis states in that their law only allows...

Utah is similar to most other Medical Cannabis states in that their law only allows the drug to treat a limited number of qualifying conditions. Chronic pain is among them. Utah weed laws define chronic pain as pain that lasts for more than two weeks and cannot be adequately managed through other therapies. It is a pretty broad definition. As such, it’s also Utah’s Medical Marijuana Achilles’ heel.

Including chronic pain as a qualifying condition explains why the vast majority of Medical Marijuana patients use it to manage pain. But is chronic pain really the issue for millions of patients? You have to wonder.

Pain Is Just the Qualifier

In a recent Utah in the Weeds podcast published on the Utahmarijuana.org website, the podcast’s hosts talked about lobbying state lawmakers to expand the list of qualifying conditions. One of the hosts is a licensed physician assistant and a Qualified Medical Provider under the state’s Medical Cannabis program.

The two spoke at length about the need for an expanded list. Part of the rationale was the number of people who use chronic pain as the qualifier for getting a Medical Cannabis Card, but actually use their medicine to help them sleep. At issue is the fact that insomnia is not on the qualifying condition list.

The point here is not to question whether or not the patients referred to in the podcast really suffer from insomnia. The point is to express legitimate concern that pain is being used as a qualifier for patients who want Medical Cannabis for other reasons.

Pain Is Hard to Quantify

Chronic pain is Medical Marijuana’s Achilles’ heel for one fundamental reason: it is hard to quantify. Back pain is a good example. A person complaining of chronic back pain can be examined by a doctor for all the most common conditions likely to cause such pain. If that doctor finds nothing wrong, does that mean that the pain is in the patient’s head? No.

Doctors freely admit that back problems are extremely difficult to diagnose. There are plenty of things capable of causing back pain without showing up on a diagnostic test. That’s why the severity of most back problems is normally measured by patient reports of pain rather than a specific diagnostic test.

Where Medical Marijuana is concerned, a patient complaining of long-term chronic pain is almost a shoo-in for a Medical Marijuana card. How does a doctor dispute complaints of chronic pain? How can a doctor argue against a patient’s claims that all of the other treatments he had tried do not work?

Pain Thresholds Differ

It is tough enough for doctors to quantify chronic pain. In many cases, it’s difficult for them to prove or disprove the presence of pain. They have to rely almost exclusively on what patients tell them. That leads to yet another problem: pain thresholds differ from one patient to the next.

Something you might consider terribly painful could amount to little more than a pinprick to someone else. Likewise, what seems like a minor muscle pull to you could sideline someone else for weeks. Pain is not a static thing. It is open to interpretation based on a person’s tolerance.

It would seem that chronic pain, as a qualifying condition, is Medical Marijuana’s Achilles’ heel. All patients have to do is claim long-term chronic pain that standard treatments do not relieve. That’s it. And because doctors cannot prove or disprove such claims, they have to take the patient’s word for it. Then it is off to the weed dispensary to get medicine that might not really be for pain.