Medical marijuana may reduce opioid deaths

Not just an excuse to get high.

Fighting the battle against opioid addiction epidemic with a new tool.

In recent years, a new addiction epidemic has taken hold on across the US.  Opioids, prescribed legally if recklessly for chronic pain conditions, have led millions into an addiction that is easy to slip into, excruciatingly difficult to kick, and yet ineffective for the chronic pain they were prescribed to treat.

Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain conditions, for which many receive prescriptions for opioid-based pain relievers such as OxyContin or Vicodin.

What are opioids?

Opiates refer to drugs made from the opium poppy.  Opioids are similar drugs made artificially.  Drugs that fall into this class include heroin, oxycodone, morphine and others.  Opiates provide short-term relief from pain.  Opioids such as OxyContin were developed to deliver longer-acting relief.  However, studies have shown that they are not effective for long-term use.  But they are extremely addictive, leading countless pain suffers to become inadvertently addicted.  Moreover, they are easily acquired, leading to their rise in abuse for non-medical street use for getting high, sometimes surpassing heroin in popularity.

Consider these chilling statistics:

  • In 2015, 1.9 million Americans were dependent on or abusing prescription opioids, as compared to 517,000 Americans who were addicted to heroin.
  • The number of prescription opioid overdose deaths increased by 91.2% from 1999 to 2002.
  • In 2013, over 100 Americans died every single day from opioid overdose; 46 died each day from prescription opioid overdoses.
  • About 75% of opioid addiction disease patients switch to heroin as a cheaper opioid source.
  • In 2012, 259 million opioid pain medication prescriptions were written, enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills.

Health officials across the country call this an epidemic.  And, in many cases, people using prescription painkillers move on to heroin use.  Both prescription painkillers and heroin are easily available on the street, but heroin is cheaper.

And, as the aging of America continues, chronic pain issues will affect more and more of the population.  With statistics showing that there are more than 100 million chronic pain patients today, how can we both relieve their pain and still prevent opioid painkiller addiction and deaths?

One toke at a time:  Medical marijuana may be the answer.

Several new studies by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed some intriguing results.  Although their research did not confirm marijuana’s effectiveness for every ailment it has been claimed to help, one area it did confirm was marijuana’s effectiveness for alleviating chronic pain.

(JAMA acknowledges that the amount of research is limited due to the difficulty of conducting studies on a Schedule 1 drug, as marijuana is still classified.  Schedule 1 drugs are defined as having no medical value, and are strictly controlled.  Until it has been proven to have medical value, it is almost impossible to do effective research, which could show whether it has any medical value.  Yes, you read that right.  It’s a classic Catch-22.)

Even within the confines of such limited research, the clear findings that marijuana can help chronic pain suggest that it might substitute for much more dangerous opioids.  A previous JAMA Psychiatry study found that opioid painkiller use has contributed to the rising use of heroin, another opioid, which is even deadlier and more addictive than painkillers.

In 2015, a JAMA study found that prescription painkiller deaths dropped in states that allowed both medical marijuana and dispensaries.

This is huge.  If medical marijuana can substitute for opioid painkillers effectively, it will represent an enormous public health benefit, both in lives saved and treatment costs.  No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose.

Forget, for now, whether medical marijuana can be an effective treatment for other disorders.  If marijuana can do nothing else but replace opioids, it will save countless lives and reduce the cost of treating addiction and overdoses.

The newest study showed that states with laws that allow medical marijuana dispensaries have seen a relative reduction in opioid overdose deaths and addiction treatment admissions.

A paper from the RAND Corporation concurred, concluding, “Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers.”

States that allow medical marijuana but do not allow dispensaries did not show the same reduce in opioid deaths, presumably because it was more difficult to obtain for those who were seeking pain relief only and may not have the same access as recreational users.

If marijuana can relieve chronic pain more effectively than opioids with none of the problems of addiction and overdose potential, it could be a boon to the 100 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain.  Marijuana may not only have valid medical use, but it may prove to be a superior medicine than legal drugs currently prescribed.

Out-of-date attitudes and an archaic and paradoxical classification of marijuana need to change immediately.  It’s not about stoners and getting buzzed.  Medical marijuana can save lives.

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