Canadian Survey Compares Marijuana Use Across Different Conditions

December 17, 2013

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Marijuana has a long history of traditional medicinal use. Today, extracts of marijuana, such as nabilone (Cesamet), are available by prescription for the treatment of nausea and to stimulate appetite and, in the case of cannabidiol (Sativex), to treat some symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) and pain. In conducting a large survey about marijuana use, Canadian researchers may have uncovered other potential medicinal applications for this herb.

In 2011 and 2012, researchers at the University of British Columbia and elsewhere launched a detailed survey to explore the reasons that Canadians with different medical conditions used marijuana. The survey also enquired about how users perceived the effectiveness of marijuana in treating their symptoms.

The researchers found that among 628 survey participants, across many health conditions, common reasons for marijuana use included the following: managing sleep difficulties, coping with the distress of chronic pain and anxiety. The researchers noted that studies could be done to explore the effect of marijuana on these conditions. Other findings from the survey appear in this CATIE News bulletin.

Study Details


Based on previous work and in consultation with medical marijuana users and experts, the research team developed a survey and posted it online where participants from across the country could complete it. To complement this, some surveys could be completed in person at a marijuana dispensary in the interior of B.C.

Many of the participants who completed the survey received marijuana through a program established by Health Canada to facilitate access for medical purposes. Briefly, Health Canada listed two categories of illness under which affected people could apply for access to medical marijuana, as follows:

Category 1:

  • arthritis
  • cancer
  • epilepsy
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • spinal cord injury or disease

Category 2:

  • people with other symptoms and conditions that were assessed by a physician and a specialist and deemed treatable with medical marijuana

The survey was comprehensive and designed to be completed in less than one hour.

Participants were recruited from across Canada via advertisements at marijuana dispensaries and through organizations that serve people affected by some of the conditions listed in Category 1.

The average profile of people who completed the survey was as follows (note that the total proportions of people in categories may not equal 100 due to rounding):

  • gender: 71% male, 29% women
  • common ethno-racial groups: 92% white, 7% Aboriginal
  • most participants were between 18 and 55 years
  • nearly 60% had a college or university education
  • 60% earned less than $40,000 per year
  • 78% lived in an urban area

Results -- Main Conditions

Participants disclosed that they used marijuana to help manage the following conditions, most of which were listed in Category 1 above:

  • arthritis
  • anxiety and/or depression
  • chronic pain
  • spinal pain
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • MS

Although participants were asked about the main condition for which they sought marijuana treatment, researchers also asked about all symptoms for which marijuana was used. Within the major categories previously mentioned (arthritis, cancer and so on), 99% of participants listed one or more of the following symptoms for which they used marijuana to find relief:

  • anxiety
  • pain
  • sleeping problems

Overall, 57% of participants disclosed that they used marijuana to provide relief from all three problems.

Results -- Other Conditions

Less than 10% but more than 2% of participants reported that they used marijuana for the following conditions:

  • higher-than-normal blood pressure
  • tics
  • to help normalize blood sugar
  • bladder dysfunction
  • male sexual dysfunction
  • seizures

Results -- Uncommon Uses

For each of the following conditions, less than 2% of participants reported medicinal use of marijuana:

  • attention deficit disorder
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • complications arising from hepatitis C virus infection
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Tourette's syndrome
  • Wilson's disease

Conditions and Associations

The study team also found the following associations:

  • People with spinal injuries reported using marijuana to treat muscle spasms.
  • People whose main condition was arthritis-related were more likely than others to disclose that they used marijuana to manage inflammation and to try to decrease elevated pressure within the eyeball.
  • HIV-positive people most commonly reported using marijuana to treat nausea and improve their appetite.
  • People who used marijuana for mental health issues reported having these conditions: anxiety, aggression, depression and psychosis.

Perceived Effectiveness

As the researchers' analysis was based on a survey (rather than several well-designed clinical trials), we cannot be certain about users' experiences with marijuana. However, researchers reported that, overall, 72% of participants noted that marijuana was "always helpful" when managing the conditions for which they sought relief. The researchers stated that this level of user assessment was "relatively consistent across [different] conditions." One exception to this was the category HIV/AIDS.

The team noted that HIV-positive participants had a relatively lower endorsement of marijuana's effects, with 55% of them finding it "always helpful" for reducing nausea or improving appetite.

The researchers stated that nearly 60% (358 people) of all participants disclosed that they were taking medications in addition to marijuana to help manage conditions. Of these 358 people, 79% reported that marijuana had "fewer side effects" than their medicines used to treat the same condition.

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication CATIE News. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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