Study Summary: Perceived Stigma of Cannabis Patients

Updated: Sep 26

A June 2022 study entitled "Perceived Stigma of Patients Undergoing Treatment with Cannabis-Based Medicinal Products" that was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health explored the potential impact of stigma on medical cannabis patients.

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The study's authors noted that "it is well documented that stigma can reduce utilization of healthcare services and can negatively impact treatment." They reported that stigma can also lead to chronic stress and anxiety, "in addition to subsequent mental and physical problems that can cause individuals to feel isolated and withdrawn."


"While there is a growing body of evidence on the associated effects of cannabis-based medicinal products on health-related quality of life in several health conditions, there is a paucity of knowledge on the prevalence and subsequent effects of stigma on current and prospective patients" in the United Kingdom, reported the study.


The study observed that "evidence from countries which have greater experience with medical cannabis therapies shows stigma to be a factor in both prescribing practice and patient perception."

The study observed that "evidence from countries which have greater experience with medical cannabis therapies shows stigma to be a factor in both prescribing practice and patient perception." Interviews of Canadian patients revealed that the most common sources of stigma were "health care providers, law enforcement, and close relatives."


The Study

"Participants in this study reported being especially affected by perceived stigma from healthcare providers," noted the scientists. They observed that some of the study's participants reported having been labeled "as addicts, while others were incorrectly assumed to be accessing the medication for reasons other than legitimate health conditions."

The study's authors noted that such stigma from healthcare providers sometimes results in patients that do not disclose their use of cannabis to their doctors and wellness providers, "placing themselves at risk of drug–drug interactions."


The research reported that a previous study in California revealed similar effects of stigma on medical cannabis patients. "This often led to delays in seeking treatment or attempts to bypass their normal medical team," noted the study.


In a survey of 984 medical cannabis dispensary customers conducted in the United States, "participants reported worries of being labelled as a 'pothead' or 'stoner.'"

In a survey of 984 medical cannabis dispensary customers conducted in the United States, "participants reported worries of being labelled as a 'pothead' or 'stoner' and, due to this perceived stigma, sought medical cannabis from healthcare providers with whom they did not have a long-term relationship."


The study's authors determined that these findings "suggest that there is ongoing stigmatization of patients using medical cannabis and this can have detrimental effects on implementation of medical cannabis with respect to both access and safety."

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The researchers explained how medical cannabis consumers are "continually stigmatized" in the United Kingdom due to the fact that adult-use (recreational) cannabis remains illegal in the country.


Results

631 participants responded to an emailed survey of 2,319 patients initially invited to participate by Sapphire Medical Clinics in the UK. Of these, 450 patients provided complete responses.


"Overall, 84 percent of participants believed that those who receive treatment with medical cannabis are subject to stigma," reported the study.

Of the 450 completed surveys, 39 percent were female and 57 percent identified as male. The mean age reported by respondents when they started consuming cannabis was 28. "Overall, 84 percent of participants believed that those who receive treatment with medical cannabis are subject to stigma," reported the study.


However, it was found that 81 percent of participants "were comfortable or very comfortable speaking about their [cannabis] prescription and telling friends, family, and medical professionals."

Of participants, 83 percent thought that friends were between somewhat approving and very approving of their medical cannabis consumption, while 75 percent perceived the same approval from their family.


However, participants reported perceiving that "only 38 percent of healthcare professionals" were approving of their cannabis consumption and that they believed that only 33 percent "of society in general" is approving of their cannabis consumption. The data revealed a "significant difference between perceived approval from family, friends, medical professionals, and society."


Participants reported perceiving that "only 38 percent of healthcare professionals" and only 33 percent "of society in general" are approving of their cannabis consumption.

Conclusions

The study summarized that patients treated with medical cannabis "were found to be comfortable discussing their treatment with family and friends," but that they were "less comfortable discussing their prescription with health professionals."


The scientists reported that there was "a clear indication that there was perceived stigma by those being treated with medical cannabis" and that this perceived stigma "comes from society in general, with an emphasis on government agencies."

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The researchers observed that the co-existence of medical and adult-use cannabis programs in all of Canada and many jurisdictions in the United States "is a factor that increases stigmatization" for medical cannabis patients. They reported that their data "reflect a similar pattern of perceived stigma despite there not being a legal recreational market for cannabis in the UK."


The study's authors declared that these results are "disappointing considering the unmet clinical need" that may result from patients avoiding medical professionals or simply foregoing treatment with medical cannabis. They suggested that "additional strategies for education and awareness are necessary to address stigma, rather than being reliant upon changing attitudes over time."


The scientists concluded that their study data suggest "there is a high prevalence of perceived stigma towards patients treated with medical cannabis from society, government officials, medical professionals, and the criminal justice system."

The scientists concluded that their study data suggest "there is a high prevalence of perceived stigma toward patients treated with medical cannabis from society, government officials, medical professionals, and the criminal justice system." They theorized that a reduction in perceived stigma "would likely increase appropriate access to medical cannabis, as well as providing auxiliary benefits."


Lower stigma toward medical cannabis users "would improve the safety of medical cannabis, with patients being empowered to share their full medication history with healthcare professionals." The study recommended education initiatives to "reduce stigma at an individual and community level to avoid discrimination of patients."


View the original study.


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