Opioid overdose continues to cause nearly 100 deaths in the U.S. daily. Nearly half of those involve prescription medications for powerful painkillers such as oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine. A growing body of research reveals that taking cannabis allows a majority of pain patients to reduce or even eliminate their use of opioids.
Doctors have been reluctant to embrace medical cannabis, citing worries about consistent dosing and monitoring. But now, a cannabis startup from Israel called Syqe is taking on the American opioid crisis with the Syqe Inhaler—a medical grade cannabis inhaler that offers both consistent dosing and tools for doctors and other health professionals to keep track of patients’ cannabis use.
Syqe’s innovative new cannabis inhaler directly addresses the concerns many American medical professionals have about prescribing or recommending cannabis for pain management: Inconsistent dosing and no way to manage a patient’s use of cannabis from things like edibles, smoking and vaping.
And so, this new inhaler technology could be the tool that disrupts the U.S. opioid crisis and brings cannabis for pain management into the medical mainstream.
An epidemic of chronic pain is what drives the American opioid epidemic, which is essentially a cycle of abuse and dependence on opioid medications. That’s why people with a variety of health conditions seek relief in the form of these potent painkillers—medications that can become addictive in less than two weeks.
But a majority of U.S. doctors prescribe opioids for far longer than that, often indefinitely. And because opioids affect receptors in the body and brain, withdrawing from them can cause the same severe symptoms as withdrawing from heroin, which is an opioid, too.
Opioids can relieve pain by interfering with pain signaling in the brain. They can also boost the production of some brain chemicals, such as dopamine, that promote positive feelings.
But they also depress the central nervous system, which is responsible for functions such as breathing and heart rate. This is why taking too many opioids, or taking them with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol or other prescription drugs, can depress breathing and other autonomous functions to the point of death.
Opioids are easy to get and easy to abuse. But people who suffer from a wide range of painful conditions from chronic disorders like arthritis to pain from injuries and surgeries often find few other options for relief.
Over-the-counter medications like aspirin and acetaminophen have their own risks and often aren’t strong enough to ease severe pain. This is why recent findings about the impact of cannabis on pain have given hope to many pain sufferers.
But people who take cannabis for pain are often left to figure out their own protocols for getting the right dose in the right format. For a variety of reasons, U.S. doctors are leery of actively prescribing or recommending medical cannabis instead of opioids. Federal regulations still label marijuana as a dangerously addictive drug, so severe restrictions and outright bans on its use continue to apply in many areas.
And even in places where medical cannabis is legal, doctors say it’s difficult to establish standardized doses—something they can easily do with prescription medications. There are so many varieties of cannabis and a range of ways to consume them, which presents numerous variables for doctors to consider.
Doctors aren’t the only ones who struggle with issues related to taking cannabis for pain. Patients, too, can feel reluctant to smoke a medicine or eat it in a candy bar form. But the search for standardized, medical-grade ways to dispense cannabis have been hampered in the U.S. by regulations and limits on research.
That’s not the case in Israel, which leads the world in cannabis startups and innovation. It’s also the home of Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a pioneering researcher whose work on cannabis compounds has paved the way for today’s studies on the benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol [CBD] for health conditions of all kinds. Because cannabis is completely legal in Israel, cannabis companies like Syqe have taken advantage of its support and resources to produce an array of new cannabis products.
Topping the list of current cannabis innovations is the medically modeled Syqe inhaler, which Syqe’s founders envision as a promising—and lucrative—new weapon for combating U.S. opioid abuse.
Many kinds of cannabis inhalers are already on the market, using a devise similar to inhalers for people with asthma or allergies. Inhalers bring cannabis compounds directly to the lungs, where blood vessels can carry them quickly to natural cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body. But typical cannabis inhalers aren’t specifically designed for pharmaceutical-grade cannabis delivery—but the Syqe inhaler is.
And this is what makes it a potential game changer for patients seeking pain relief with cannabis—and for doctors who are uncertain about prescribing the plant.
Tel Aviv-based Syqe bills its cannabis inhaler as a device that’s capable of delivering “plant medicine” in the same way as rigorously tested traditional pharmaceuticals. Unlike other cannabis inhalers, the Syqe inhaler comes with preloaded cartridges containing a given amount of cannabis for metered dosing.
The pocket-sized inhaler also features lung monitoring—a sensor that responds to the way a consumer inhales, so that the appropriate dose is delivered every time. The Syqe inhaler also comes with a chip that links it to a medical database, so that doctors can monitor a patient’s use and make adjustments remotely—a feature designed to satisfy doctors’ concerns about standardizing and controlling patients’ access to cannabis.
The Syqe inhaler promises to bring cannabis into the medical mainstream—and into the fight against opioid addiction. But does it work? A study reported by the Journal of Pain and Palliative Pharmacotherapy says that it can, accounting for a 45% reduction in pain intensity just 20 minutes after use. That’s on par with established pharmaceutical standards for inhaled drugs in general.
Cannabis can be an effective pain reliever without the many side effects and overdose risks of potent opioid medications. But medical cannabis remains out of reach for many patients, because of legalities and doctors’ reluctance to prescribe a medication that lacks the features of standardized pharmaceuticals.
The Syqe inhaler and products like it could change all that—and help many more Americans find their way out of the opioid epidemic.
Photo credit: Pixabay
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