Can Medical Marijuana Ease Our Opiate Crisis?

There is no denying that the United States is in the grips of a serious opiate epidemic. Opiate prescriptions have skyrocketed over the past twenty years. The US now consume 80% of the world’s opioids. And it’s causing some serious damage. You’d be hard pressed to find a community that hasn’t been ravaged by opiate addiction. According to Frontline, there are more than 27,000 opiate related deaths each year. Granted, that number includes heroin deaths, but since four out of five heroin users trace their addictions to medically prescribed opioid pain relievers, it’s time to look into other pain relief options. Could medical marijuana ease our reliance on opiates to treat pain? There is a growing number of medical professionals who think it can.

Opioids have become the US’s de facto pain medication because they really do their job. Unfortunately, they’re also highly addictive and opiate tolerance requires you take ever increasing doses. Marijuana has been found to attach to the very same pain receptors as opiates, but without the harmful side effects. In addition, marijuana reduces inflammation that causes pain, works as a muscle relaxer and is a welcome mood enhancer. The only downside is while cannabis works great to relieve certain kinds of pain, it doesn’t relieve all pain across the board. Until more research is done to pinpoint why that is, many pain specialists are starting to use marijuana in conjunction with prescription opiates. So far, studies have shown that adding marijuana to opioid treatment has led to less reliance on opiate pain relievers. Study participants have been able to cut back on their opiate consumption while staying pain free. That’s a huge milestone but cannabis does so much more. Marijuana slows down opiate tolerance so patients don’t have to increase their opiate use. It also treats the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, allowing patients to safely taper off their medication.

Medical studies are proving how well marijuana treats pain, especially when used with opiate pain relievers. And the results are being seen nationwide. States with legal marijuana dispensaries have seen a 15-35% decrease in substance abuse related hospitalizations. A 2014 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found a 24.8% decrease in opiate overdoses in medical marijuana states. For example, during the first year that Massachusetts made medical marijuana available, opiate deaths decreased by almost 20%. Five years later, the rate has dropped to 33.7%. And it’s not just a human price we’re paying for our opiate addiction. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the US spends over $72 billion a year on opiate abuse. Medical marijuana states save $165 million every year on opioid related issues alone. It has been theorized that if marijuana legalization went nationwide, we could save $400 million in Medicare Part D costs.

With data like that, why isn’t the US incorporating cannabis in all opiate pain relief plans? The obvious answer is the Federal Government. Marijuana is still classified a Schedule 1 drug. Not only does this make growing and possessing marijuana a Federal offense, but researchers have a very difficult time gaining permission to study cannabis’ medical uses. Even in states where both medical and recreational pot is allowed, regulatory restrictions impede legitimate study. So far, the DEA has refused all pleas to reschedule marijuana but last summer they did agree to ease restrictions on research. This means more scientific studies, more funding, and more legitimacy for the role cannabis plays in pain relief. Medical marijuana just might be the solution we’ve been looking for in the fight against the opiate epidemic. And it couldn’t come soon enough.

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