The body of scientific research strongly suggests that the opioid epidemic that is ravaging communities across the country is related to the use of prescription opioid painkillers. A number of studies have demonstrated that there is a causal relationship between prescribed opioid painkillers and heroin use. One study of young heroin users found that 86 percent had used pain relievers nonmedically prior to graduating to more powerful street opioids. Another study found that 75 percent of opioid addicts began by abusing prescription drugs.
Given that almost 20 percent of U.S. patients in office-based settings are being prescribed opioid medications for acute and chronic pain conditions, and the high risk of opioid addiction, the medical community is searching furiously for alternatives. One of the more unconventional possible alternatives to prescription opioids is medical marijuana.
There is growing evidence that the states that legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes experience a decline in opioid abuse rates. For example, Montana experienced a 1.7 percent reduction in the number of positive tests for opioids after medical marijuana was legalized. The authors of the study attributed the modest decline to patients substituting marijuana for prescription opioids as a pain medication. A study published Health Affairs also found that states that legalized medical marijuana saw a drop of 1,826 fewer painkiller prescriptions per year. Most importantly, a study published in JAMA found a 25 percent drop in opioid overdose deaths in states where marijuana had been legalized for medical use.
Half of U.S. states have passed medical marijuana laws, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the use of cannabis as a therapeutic. There is a limited amount of scientific literature about the efficacy of marijuana in moderating pain, and the Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated it as a painkiller.
Some of the more reliable studies of marijuana as a pain therapeutic have shown that cannabinoids do interact with pain receptors to reduce pain. A meta-study of 79 papers revealed that medical marijuana was likely to diminish pain by 30 percent or more.
The ever-growing scale of the opioid epidemic that is currently claiming the lives of 80 Americans a day is fueling a closer examination of marijuana. Earlier this year, Maine reportedly began considering medical marijuana as a treatment option for opioid addiction. Although this initiative was ultimately denied by the health department, it spurred a public debate about medical marijuana. A number of Massachusetts clinics are using marijuana as a therapy for addiction to painkillers, although the state health department has not officially sanctioned this particular application.
Marijuana itself, of course, is not a pristine solution. Marijuana use does lead to a handful of deaths annually on its own (and more often as an ingredient in fatal drug cocktails), and there is the potential for addiction. The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that about 30 percent of marijuana users will develop some degree of marijuana use disorder, with this figure rising as the age of the user declines.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.