An epidemic of addiction to opiates, including prescription narcotics and illegal drugs such as heroin, is one of the biggest health challenges facing the United States. More than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdose in 2016, a fivefold increase over 1999. Opiates have surpassed car accidents and shootings as the most common cause of accidental death in this country. Could medical cannabis be a solution to the problem?
Cannabis vs Opiates
A growing number of studies suggest that the answer is yes. Not only can cannabis be used in many forms (smoking, vaporizing, consuming in capsules or edibles) as a substitute for opiates to treat pain, but cannabis can also be used in conjunction with opiates to increase their effectiveness and reduce the necessary dose to safer levels.
In recent months, a series of studies has contributed to a growing body of evidence that medical marijuana can help turn the tide of opioid addiction. , based on data for Medicare and Medicaid patients, found that opioid prescriptions fell significantly — up to 14.5 percent — in states that had medical cannabis laws. The effect was most pronounced in states that had medical dispensaries but was also significant in states that only allowed home cultivation.
Many ways that cannabis can help – Marijuana for opiate withdrawal
An earlier study found that deaths from opioid overdose fell in states that enacted medical cannabis laws, and that fatality rates continued to decline each year — perhaps as more individuals turned to marijuana and away from the more dangerous opiates.
Medical marijuana can help reduce the use of opiates in several ways:
- Patients with chronic pain and other conditions may be able to use cannabis instead of highly addictive and dangerous drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin). One showed that 44 percent of opiate-using patients were able to stop taking their prescription drugs within seven months after they began smoking cannabis or eating cannabis-infused cookies.
- Cannabis can be used instead of various prescription drugs to help patients with the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, such as nausea, abdominal cramping, anxiety, restlessness and insomnia.
- Intriguingly, cannabis can help increase the efficacy of prescription narcotics, which often stop working well as patients with chronic pain build up resistance. This is significant, because complete withdrawal from prescription drugs is not an option for many patients. A showed a 64 percent decrease in opiate use when patients used cannabis in combination with their prescription drugs.
Marijuana and painkillers
A recent of medical marijuana patients by geriatric physicians at one of the nation’s largest health care systems found that 65 percent were able to reduce their use of other painkillers, including 27 percent who said they got off painkillers completely. The patients used marijuana to deal with chronic pain from osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis and other conditions. An overwhelming 91 percent said they would recommend medical marijuana to others.
“My quality of life has increased considerably since starting medical marijuana,” one patient said. Another patient said medical marijuana “has allowed me to function in my work and life again. It has not completely taken away the allows me to manage it.”
Growing acceptance of medical uses
Cannabis can help patients even without causing them to get high. A growing body of research is focusing on the potential therapeutic effects of cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical compound in cannabis that does not have the psychoactive effects of the better-known THC. Animal studies have suggested that CBD decrease addictive behavior.
With medical marijuana legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, doctors are becoming more comfortable in discussing its use with their patients. Even the that encourage health practitioners to discuss marijuana use and its clinical relevance with any veterans asking about it. That is significant because the VA is severely limited by federal laws classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning in legal terms that it has no medically accepted use.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that more study needs to be done to determine whether the legalization of marijuana is having a real impact on the opioid crisis. But there is no real argument about the fact that opiates are highly addictive and deadly, while there has never been a recorded instance of a fatal overdose from marijuana.
“No one has ever died of cannabis, so it has many safety advantages over opiates,” David Bradford, professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia and author of several cannabis studies, . And while some people may become dependent on marijuana, it is not considered addictive and generally is no more difficult to quit than caffeine.