Tuesday April 11, 2017

By Morgan Smith

Cannabis & Addiction: How Marijuana is Helping Fight the Opioid Epidemic Health/Science

More than six out of ten drug overdose deaths involve an opioid. There were 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers in 2015—a rate that has quadrupled since 1999. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies this magnitude of opioid abuse an epidemic. Amidst the epidemic, however, there is one shining beacon of hope, cannabis.

So what exactly are opioids? And why are they so addicting? They’re an entire class of drug that includes heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and more. The drugs and pain relievers interact with the brain’s nerve cells to relieve pain and produce pleasurable effects. And considering the National Center for Health Statistics reports that more than 76 million Americans suffer from pain, it’s no wonder the number of opiate prescriptions has nearly doubled over the last decade.

The Benefits of Marijuana Legalization on Opioid Abuse

Let’s consider the following statistics from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM):

  • 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids

  • Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers

  • Two million of the 20.5 million Americans with a substance use disorder in 2015 had a disorder involving pain relievers and 591,000 had a disorder with heroin

  • Nearly 23% of individuals who use heroin develop an opioid addiction

source (pdf)


Clearly an opioid problem is sweeping the nation. But what can be done as more and more people struggle to get clean? Individuals and doctors alike are finding that cannabis is a compelling option.

In fact, in states where there is a form of legalized marijuana (recreational or medicinal) opioid addiction is down approximately 25%. This equates to about 1,700 fewer opioid painkiller overdoses in states with medical marijuana laws in 2010. Even emergency room visits for opioid overdoses were nearly 13% lower in these states. (And consider that only three states had legalized medical marijuana when this data was compiled.)

In medical marijuana states, each physician prescribed an average of 1,826 fewer doses of conventional pain medication each year.

Although this insight shared in an issue of Health Affairs didn’t analyze how many of those were opioid drugs or other painkillers, it shows that medical marijuana can help divert people away from beginning an opioid journey.

This is exactly what marijuana legalization intended to do. By creating safe access to medical cannabis, people with acute, chronic or severe pain have been able to mitigate and treat their ailments without turning to opioids. Conversely, medical marijuana is helping those struggling with addiction get off of harder substances and ease withdrawal symptoms.

Cannabis Helps

Marijuana can treat chronic pain, reduce acute pain and alleviate the cravings from opioid withdrawal. It’s a better way to treat addiction and can work better than certain pharmaceuticals—which, by the way, are chemically manufactured drug themselves. Because cannabis is a naturally occurring plant, it is a healthier way to treat numerous diseases, cancer and pain symptoms. Plus, it’s much less dangerous and addictive than opioids.

Think about it: Why wouldn’t you replace an addictive substance with a non-addictive one? Especially one that alleviates the painful symptoms associated with withdrawal?

In fact, High Society in Los Angeles, CA, offers cannabis-inclusive treatment through their mental health and addiction services. Their website mentions the benefits in detoxification and discomfort, aiding the withdrawal process and reducing (or eliminating) the need for other drugs. They also note that this treatment route isn’t for everyone, however total abstinence in the majority of addiction treatment centers is simply unrealistic. The way they put it, marijuana can be an exit drug.

Cannabis consumption is helping many people struggling with addiction. photo credit

Troubles with Research

Of course, cannabis’ classification as a Schedule 1 drug makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to study the potential benefits it could do for treating addicts trying to get clean.

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, the simple fact remains; more research needs to be done to compare cannabis with opioids for treating chronic pain.

A recent article in The Atlantic pointed out a self-funded trial at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Connecticut that will compare opioids and medical marijuana for treating acute pain. In Colorado, a clinical trial has received DEA approval to test both treatment options.

Using cannabis to treat acute pain is familiar territory. Anecdotally, we’ve heard about patients replacing prescription drugs with cannabis. This could either be due to the fact that’s it a drug with a fewer amount of side effects or as a way to avoid using alcohol or illicit substances. Some even say that cannabis gives them mindfulness and the ability to take a step back and think about what they’re doing, or about to do. But if you’re taking the step to wean yourself off a hard drug, you’ll need all the support you can get. Cannabis helps with symptoms like nausea, tremors and insomnia.

There are many methods of recovery from abstinence-based to cannabis-fueled. While the process will be different—or may not even work—for everyone, who’s going to object to a route that gets addicts off painkillers and manage their life without substances?


Do you think cannabis is a good substitute for opioids?

Photo Credit: oliver.dodd (license)


Morgan Smith Morgan Smith

A born and raised Hoosier and Indiana University alumna, Morgan Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in the Denver area. Morgan has worked with B2B, nonprofit and regional publications, but especially enjoys learning and educating others about the inner-workings of the cannabis industry. Her freelance writing supported her recent six-month solo backpacking trip to South America where she climbed volcanoes, played with llamas and jumped off a bridge.


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