It’s long been known that the marijuana plant (Cannabis sativa) contains chemicals that can help treat a range of illnesses and symptoms. Among the proven benefits from using medicine derived from cannabis are reducing pain and inflammation and controlling epileptic seizures.

Now, American researchers are looking into marijuana’s potential as an effective alternative to prescription drugs in alleviating pain and potentially replacing the addictive and deadly opioids.

A new study showed how cannabis might be an effective treatment option for both pain relief and insomnia. This finding is especially valuable for people looking to avoid prescription and over the counter pain and sleep medications -- especially opioids.

Published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, the study looked at 1,000 people taking legal marijuana in one of the U.S. states. It found that among the 65 percent of people taking cannabis for pain, 80 pepercent found it was very or extremely helpful.

This saw 82 percent of these people being able to reduce, or stop taking over the counter pain medications. Another 88 percent was able to stop taking opioid painkillers.

The study reported that 74 percent of the 1,000 interviewees said they bought cannabis to help them sleep. Of the number, 84 percent said marijuana helped them, and 83 percent said they had since reduced or stopped taking over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids.

The study suggested that cannabis could lower opioid use. However, the researchers cautioned that more research needs to be done to understand the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

"Approximately 20 percent of American adults suffer from chronic pain, and one in three adults do not get enough sleep," said Dr. Gwen Wurm, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Traditional over-the-counter medications and painkillers can help, but they might have serious side effects. Opioids depress the respiratory system, meaning overdoses can be fatal.

Unfortunately, people develop tolerance to opioids, which means they require higher doses to achieve the same effect.

Opioid Crisis In US
Map shows counties with opioid high-risk, which includes low rate of medication for treatment of opioid use disorder providers and high rates of opioid overdose death (red). Haffajee, Lin, Bohnert, Goldstick/University of Michigan

"This means that chronic pain patients often increase their dose of opioid medications over time, which in turn increases their risk of overdose,” said Dr. Julia Arnsten, Professor of Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

"In states where adult use of cannabis is legal, our research suggests that many individuals bypass the medical cannabis route (which requires registering with the state) and are instead opting for the privacy of a legal adult use dispensary," said Wurm.

The study also helps prove the theory that widening access to medical cannabis might lower the use of prescription painkillers. This result will enable more people to manage and treat their pain without relying on opioid prescription drugs with their dangerous and sometimes lethal side effects.