Last week, Italy’s interior minister declared “war” on “light cannabis,” or low-THC hemp flower that shops across the country sell to consumers using a legal loophole. It’s unclear if they’ll continue to do so come June, however, as the nation’s Supreme Court of Cassation is expected to weigh in on the legality of selling hemp later this month.
Yet, in the first 10 months after light cannabis became available for purchase, the country’s National Health Service saw a noteworthy decrease in the number of pharmaceutical drugs it dispensed, a new study reports.
“Specifically,” researchers from York University in the United Kingdom wrote, “after the introduction of the policy, we find that the arrival of light cannabis in a given province led to a reduction in the number of dispensed boxes of anxiolytics by approximately 11.5%, reduction of dispensed sedatives by 10% and a reduction of dispensed anti-psychotics by 4.8%.”
The study, published in the Health Econometrics and Data Group Working Paper series, is one of the first to look into how people use cannabis to self-medicate.
In 2016, a new law in Italy regulating hemp production unintentionally set off a “green gold rush”: Cannabis flower with 0.2 percent THC or less became legal to purchase as a “collector’s item.” People can buy jars of hemp flower, but are not technically allowed to consume it. Not unlike the U.S.’s 2018 Farm Bill that federally legalized industrial hemp, Italy’s law removed certain restrictions around the plant. Within months, retailers in the country were selling hemp bud as a “technical product.”
The study’s authors found “the unintended liberalization of light cannabis” as a great entry-point to study how accessibility to cannabis can potentially spur people to turn to cannabis as substitution for traditional drugs.
“[W]e find that the local market accessibility of light cannabis led to a reduction in dispensed packets of opioids, anxiolytics, sedatives, anti-migraines, antiepileptics, anti-depressives and anti-psychotics.”
For their research, they collected monthly data on pharmaceutical drug sales for all 106 Italian provinces from January 2016 to February 2018. On a monthly average, they found the Italian health authority provides reimbursements for 28 packets of sedatives and 72 boxes of anxiolytics (or anti-anxiety medication) per province. They also documented the reimbursement of 12,610 packets for opioids, 18,460 packets for antiepileptics, 27,198 packets for anti-depressants, 4,802 packets for anti-psychotics, and 2,504 boxes for anti-migraines.
After light cannabis became readily available at retail shops, the average number of dispensed pharmaceuticals dropped by approximately 1.6 percent. Prescriptions for drugs typically used to treat anxiety and psychosis—conditions for which CBD has been found to impact—decreased the most.
“This is intuitively explained by the relaxant properties of CBD, which is often used to treat sleep disorders,” the study states. “Moreover, the large coefficient we observe for sedatives and anxiolytics are also consistent with substitution stemming from self-assessment and self-medication, that is, the possibility to individually evaluate symptoms (i.e. anxiety and insomnia) and, consequently, to decide whether to take a pill.”
Researchers also documented a small decrease in the average number of packets dispensed for anti-epileptics (-1.5%), anti-depressives (- 1.2%), opioids (-1.2%) and anti-migraines (approximately -1%) as well.
Ultimately, the study concludes that “even a mild form of liberalization may generate a significant spillover effect on the market for pharmaceuticals.” As a result, the researchers encourage policymakers to consider regulating the light cannabis market more effectively and evaluate how hemp-derived CBD can be used medicinally.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials are still trying to figure out how to regulate products containing CBD. It could take several years without congressional action, FDA’s commissioner said recently.
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.