Canada’s recent legalization of marijuana has many Americans asking for the same in our country. Although some may just want to legally get high or profit off the fast-growing industry, research shows marijuana could save lives by helping to reduce the current opioid epidemic.
Kentucky has the third highest rate of drug overdose in the nation with over 1,500 deaths last year. Opioids are frequently prescribed for treating pain, but what about safer alternatives? Not a single person has ever overdosed on marijuana, and its effectiveness in treating chronic pain means it could help reduce the amount of opioid-related deaths.
First, marijuana is a plant. It is composed of many chemicals known as cannabinoids, THC and CBD being the two most common. Marijuana is listed by the DEA as a schedule I drug, along with heroin and others, which means the government classifies it as having no medical benefits. This makes it difficult for universities and researchers to clinically test its effects without facing legal issues. However, a 2016 neuroscience summit provides up-to-date evidence of marijuana’s ability to repress pain, along with other benefits and risks.
On the other hand, opiates provide little relief in treating chronic pain, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends doctors to prescribe them only in rare cases. But in 2015, Kentucky providers wrote opioid prescriptions for 97 people out of every 100—that’s about 4.5 million prescriptions.
Multiple studies show that when people currently taking opioids for chronic pain were given cannabis, they preferred the cannabis. They also reduced their use of the opioids by 40-60 percent.
Another study finds that the non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, CBD, directly reduces heroin-seeking behavior.
States with medical marijuana dispensaries experienced reductions in opioid-related overdoses. These studies imply medical marijuana can be substituted for opioids, but it might not be that simple. The many components in cannabis interact differently among patients. Some experience increased anxiety, nausea, paranoia and other negative effects. THC, the cannabinoid responsible for feelings of euphoria or being high, can cause a dependence in users.
Overall, medical marijuana’s ability to curb the opioid epidemic is a complex topic with some competing research, but the fact that Kentucky deaths continue to rise from this atrocious epidemic means alternatives need to be explored. Join the growing list of doctors, athletes and others to pressure your government to remove marijuana from the schedule I drug list so researchers can catch up to the laws states have enacted on marijuana.