Medical Marijuana and the Fight Against Opioid Addiction
Cannabis could be solution for this serious problem.
Published on October 19, 2015

In 2014, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that 46 people die everyday from prescription painkiller overdoses. States like Massachusetts have declared a public health emergency in response to these deaths, as well as the increased use of heroin—which many turn to when opioid-based prescriptions become too expensive. Many of those who overdosed were originally on legal prescriptions for pain treatment, before developing the addiction. It’s worth asking, could an alternative treatment like medical marijuana stem the wave of addiction and overdoses?

Well, it may not be a cure-all, but it certainly could play a role.

The Journal of American Medicine also found that the 23 states with medical marijuana laws saw 25 percent fewer opioid overdoses annually. There’s no conclusive evidence on cannabis’ role in preventing these deaths, but one theory is that many patients were taking marijuana alongside painkillers, which allowed them to take pills less frequently.

In 2011, Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor at University of California San Francisco, ran a study where 21 patients on morphine or oxycodone regimens added marijuana to their routines. Sure enough, the patients reported a significant drop in pain after vaporizing marijuana. Abrams has been studying the effects of cannabinoid on pain since the 1990s, when he studied how marijuana affected nerve pain in HIV patients, and adds he frequently sees cancer patients who manage their pain with cannabis.

“It would make some sense that plant cannabinoids would be involved in the modulation of pain,” says Abrams. After all, “we have a whole system of cannabinoid receptors” that help regulate pain when stimulated. This endocannabinoid system regulates our bodies’ ingestion of cannabinoids—marijuana’s chemical components—and is related to pain modulation, as well as appetite. In fact, this may even help painkiller addicts kick their habit—Aljazeera America even profiled patients doing just that.

That said, cannabis can’t completely replace the need for opioid based painkillers. The consensus from the medical community seems to be that pot is better for treating chronic pain than acute pain. “I probably wouldn’t recommend it if you got in a car accident and broke your arm,” said Dr. Abrams, though he notes many patients still want to avoid pills.

In the end, the biggest obstacle isn’t the pills but the pushers: those doctors over-prescribing strong painkillers to patients who don’t need them. The CDC found that health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, meaning a general reduction of prescriptions would save many lives. “When prescriptions [opioids] go up, deaths go up. When they go down, deaths go down,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden told The Daily Beast.

Increased prescription monitoring by states would be the biggest step towards fighting the epidemic. Per the CDC, New York and Tennessee saw a 75 percent and 36 percent drop respectively in patients visiting multiple by requiring doctors to check with monitoring programs. Additionally, when Florida regulated pain clinics and stopped doctors from selling painkillers out of their offices, they saw a 50 percent drop in overdoses.

It’ll take many factors to combat the damage overprescribed painkillers are doing, but legalizing marijuana may be one step states should consider. It wouldn’t interfere in monitoring programs, wouldn’t stop crackdowns, and could even help

Alejandro Ramirez
Alejandro Ramirez is a freelance journalist in Boston and also serves as the online editor of Spare Change News. His work has also appeared in Dig Boston, BDCWire, Scout Somerville, and WBUR's Cognoscenti. He has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Pine Manor College.
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