One of the most challenging problems facing the United States right now is the rampant opioid epidemic. Sadly, we are constantly bombarded by reports of more peoples who’s lives are taken by opioid addictions and untimely overdoses. Addiction is a hard habit to break, especially when that addiction is caused by a legal prescription in the first place. One of the ways that medical marijuana could benefit the United States greatly is as an alternative for opioids during the treatment of conditions like chronic pain.
Jeff Sessions, the current Attorney General of the United States, has always been a vocal opponent of marijuana and the ability for cannabis to possibly help alleviate the country’s opioid epidemic is something that he may be unwilling to accept. Sessions has stated that he believes cannabis will not benefit people who abuse opioids by stating,
“Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse. Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that's been made out there to just — almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that's true. Maybe science will prove I'm wrong.”
Well, it seems that science is proving Attorney General Sessions wrong, in more way than one.
Though Session’s statement may seem brash and radical, the government’s recent decision not to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II substance means that they also still believe that cannabis has no medical efficacy whatsoever. Yet, by choosing not to reclassify marijuana, the federal government is completely ignoring a series of studies and scientific information that proves its medical efficacy. Cannabis could be one of the best tools to stop the opioid epidemic due to its ability to replace opioids or reduce the amount of opioids necessary to help people.
One of the most common uses of opioids is to treat chronic pain, which often causes opioid addiction due to a doctor’s prescription to treat the chronic condition in the first place. There are many different studies that support medical marijuana’s efficacy for chronic pain. In January of this year, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Report surveyed 10,000 studies conducted since 1999 and came to 100 conclusions about the benefits and uses of medical marijuana. The review found numerous therapeutic effects of cannabis, on everything from mental health to cancer to pain. In relation to pain specifically, patients treated with cannabis experienced a significant reduction of pain while using marijuana, as well as an increase in immune system benefits.
A study from the Journal of Pain in 2016 found that people who had access to medical marijuana were 64% less likely to use opioids. Patients having access to medical marijuana alone made them less likely to use opioids. The study looked at 244 different medical patients and cannabis use was associated with a better quality of life, fewer medication being used, and less side effects being experienced from those medications.
This is consistent with other studies that have found that opioid use actually decreases in states that have legalized medical marijuana. A Health Affairs study published in 2016 found that in states with access to medical marijuana there was a decreased number of prescriptions by Medicare Part D recipients after the implementation of legalization. The availability of medical marijuana greatly changed the amount of prescriptions that patients were being prescribed and/or requesting for conditions for which medical marijuana was a viable alternative treatment.
States with medical cannabis have also reported fewer opioid related deaths. A study from 2014, published in JAMA , looked at marijuana laws and opioid related deaths between 1999 and 2010. In that time, there were 25% fewer deaths in states where medical marijuana was accessible. Each year since the passing of medical marijuana legislation served to produce a greater decrease in opioid related deaths. The study was observational, but it showed a very positive trend in relation to the benefits that cannabis could provide.
Patients with chronic pain will often choose cannabis over prescription opioids if given the choice. A recent study published in February of this year from the University of British Colombia and the University of Victoria found that patients who had access to legal cannabis and legal prescription opioids chose cannabis 63% of the time. The study included 250 different patients with both chronic pain and mental health conditions. The co-author of the study, associate professor Zach Walsh said that cannabis may be able to reduce the problematic use of prescription medications.
Lastly, a recent study down by HelloMD in conjunction with UC Berkeley found that over 95% of patients who used cannabis in conjunction with chronic pain either reduced their opioid intake or eliminated it altogether. This study, to be published soon, was conducted with 3,000 cannabis patients who had chronic pain.
In thousands of year of use, there have been no reported deaths associated with cannabis. Marijuana is also far less habit forming than opioids and far less addictive. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research first published in July of 2015 found that, “states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not”.
The access to medical marijuana could be exactly what the nation needs to reduce opioid addiction. All of these scientific studies show that marijuana can, in fact, help to combat the opioid epidemic and aid the country in reducing its opioid consumption by providing a viable alternative medication for patients suffering from a variety of conditions.