Cannabis for Chronic Pain: Challenges and Considerations

Pharmacotherapy. 2018 Jun;38(6):651-662. doi: 10.1002/phar.2115. Epub 2018 May 16.


The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has found substantial evidence that cannabis (plant) is effective for the treatment of chronic pain in adults, and moderate evidence that oromucosal cannabinoids (extracts, especially nabiximols) improve short-term sleep disturbances in chronic pain. The paradoxical superiority of the cannabis plant over cannabinoid molecules represents a challenge for the medical community and the established processes that define modern pharmacy. The expanding and variable legalization of cannabis in multiple states nationwide represents an additional challenge for patients and the medical community because recreational and medicinal cannabis are irresponsibly overlapped. Cannabis designed for recreational use (containing high levels of active ingredients) is increasingly available to patients with chronic pain who do not find relief with current pharmacologic entities, which exposes patients to potential harm. This article analyzes the available scientific evidence to address controversial questions that the current state of cannabis poses for health care professionals and chronic pain patients and sets the basis for a more open discussion about the role of cannabis in modern medicine for pain management. A critical discussion on these points, the legal status of cannabis, and considerations for health care providers is presented.

Keywords: marijuana; medical cannabis; medical marijuana; medicinal cannabis; medicinal marijuana; recreational cannabis; recreational marijuana.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cannabinoids / therapeutic use
  • Cannabis
  • Chronic Pain / drug therapy*
  • Dronabinol / analysis
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Use / adverse effects
  • Medical Marijuana / adverse effects
  • Medical Marijuana / analysis
  • Medical Marijuana / pharmacology
  • Medical Marijuana / therapeutic use*


  • Cannabinoids
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Dronabinol