Study Explores the Positive Effects of Free Cannabis Donations

Last week, a new study published in the Harm Reduction Journal reported that donating cannabis for free could be a successful method of harm reduction in the U.S.

Entitled “Cannabis donation as a harm reduction strategy: a case study” claims to be the first of its kind to study the benefits of giving away weed for free. The team was made up of five researchers from RTI International, Rutgers University’s School of Social Work, and San Francisco General Hospital.

According to the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act, giving away up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis (or up to 15 grams of concentrate) is legal as long as the recipient is over 21 and “as long as the transfer is not advertised or promoted to the public.”

Researchers analyzed a harm reduction program and studied administrative data between September 2021-May 2023. Ten program participants who were “cannabis-experienced,” and received donations weekly, or via delivery, were the focus of the study.

The program staff were permitted to determine “client interest and appropriateness” when providing the cannabis donations, which could be done if there is excess product, or “especially when they have personal experience using cannabis to mitigate the dangers of the substance.”

Cannabis donations are largely unregulated, staff are trained to provide cannabis to those in need. “While the policies surrounding the regulation and distribution of cannabis can still present barriers towards this practice, harm reduction staff working in the field see the potential benefits of cannabis, which include reduced premature death, improved quality of life, pain moderation, increased recovery outcomes, and improved safety for clients and community,” researchers wrote of their conclusion.

One staff member described a person who was 50 or older had spinal fusion neck surgery, which included the addition of “two steel rods, three connectors, and six bolts” five months after the study began. “Before the surgery, this person had not used opioids for two years (as evidenced by criminal legal mandated urine drug screens) but reported frequent struggles in denying himself alcohol,” researchers explained. “With their use of the products donated by this program, this individual reported complete abstinence from alcohol while recovering from their surgery and since. They expressed gratitude for topical pain relief with cannabis pain cream, cannabis vape cartridges, and flower for smoking.”

Another example was provided regarding a pregnant woman in her 20s, and was a “methamphetamine and opioid dependent injector” when the study began. “She reported that with the use of products donated in this program, she used methamphetamine and opioids less frequently, and actively worked with harm reduction agency staff to get on [medications for opioid use disorder] while pregnant.”

Researchers noted, however, that this study was not designed to assess the outcome of the program, but instead the goal was to describe how the program works in a state that has legal provisions to allow such donations.

Study authors also explained that cannabis flower products make up a large margin of adult-use and medical cannabis sales, but “edible, oil, and topical products predominated donations.” “Further, cost analysis suggests that donations represent only 1% of total gross sales and account for much less than the expected yearly donation amount.” The study points out that the revenue loss is minimal.

Overall, study authors concluded that more research should be conducted in order to further define the benefits of harm reduction programs like the one in Michigan. “Research suggests there is potential to reduce alcohol and drug use related harms of more dangerous substances through substitution with cannabis,” the researchers wrote. “Findings from this case study provide a starting point for inquiry into cannabis donation as a harm reduction strategy in the US; future research is needed to fully understand the individual-level outcomes, public health impacts, necessary legal regulations, and best practices for cannabis donation programs through harm reduction organizations.”

Michigan’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency announced in January that the state has collected a total of $3.06 billion in cannabis sales in 2023. By that amount, the dollar amount of cannabis products per person would come out to an estimated $305 (in California, the per capita amount is approximately $150, for example). 

Many other studies that have been conducted over the past decade point to the effectiveness of cannabis as a medicine. Authors of one such study, which was published in February, urge the importance of implementing a regulatory framework to support the use of cannabinoids as an opioid alternative. “Based on a comprehensive review of the literature and epidemiological evidence to date, cannabinoids stand to be one of the most interesting, safe, and accessible tools available to attenuate the devastation resulting from the misuse and abuse of opioid narcotics,” researchers wrote. “Considering the urgency of the opioid epidemic and broadening of cannabinoid accessibility amidst absent prescribing guidelines, the authors recommend use of this clinical framework in the contexts of both clinical research continuity and patient care.”

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