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Medical Cannabis and Opioid Abuse

by Jacob Demé

For years, physicians had been misled about the long-term effects of opioid painkiller. Before the FDA increased regulations on pharmaceutical advertising, drugs such as Oxycodone (brand name Oxycontin) were promoted as having no adverse effects in long-term use. Misleading advertising was only one factor that spurred the dramatic rise in opioid prescriptions however.  In fact, according to the International Narcotics Review Board, opioid prescriptions in the United States have increased from 71 million prescriptions in 1999 to 207 million prescriptions in 2013. The repercussions of such an increase in the supply of prescription opioids have proven to be quite harmful, as CDC data shows the number of opioid-related deaths, in the form of prescriptions and heroin, has surpassed the number violent gun deaths per year in the United States.

In addition to this startling reality, the connection between prescription opioids and the rising use of heroin causes concern. As more and more people become dependent on opioids, more are eventually cut off due to a doctor’s refusal to prescribe or financial reasons. Thus, some will turn to heroin, as it elicits a similar opiate response in the brain and is much cheaper in comparison to pain medication.

Needless to say, there is a glaring need for opioid alternatives in the management of pain in order to curb this deadly epidemic. Medical cannabis may very well be an alternative that could have a very positive effect on both those already dependent on opioids as well as in a preventative manner. Medical cannabis is a candidate for pain management and addiction treatment, because while cannabis can produce a pain relieving effect like opioids, there are far fewer consequences to one’s health. While smoking the plant form of cannabis can have harmful effects on the lungs, there are now plenty of ways to ingest cannabis without smoking, such as through cannabis infused food products and topical treatments.

thumbnail Beyond the risks involved with smoking, marijuana poses little threat to the health of a consumer depending on age and pre existing conditions. Medical cannabis technology has been developed extensively over the past decade, and it can now be consumed in forms that remove the “high” that one would normally get from the psychoactive compounds of the traditional forms, but retain the pain relieving qualities of the plant. Also, marijuana is considered to have extremely low rates of addiction, meaning it could be effective even for long-term treatment. In contrast, opioids have the potential to have a lethally depressive effect on the respiratory system when the consumer takes too large of a dose. In addition, opioids are associated with high rates of dependence and addiction, which is an underlying cause of the epidemic.

Recently, a lecturer at UC Berkeley, Amanda Reiman (MSW, PhD) asked this question herself in the largest study to date on the effects of medical cannabis and opioid use. When discussing the restrictions that were placed on this study due to the federal illegality of marijuana, despite it being legalized in California on November 8th, 2016, she responded that the federal Schedule One status of cannabis “limits controlled trials.” However, the state legalization can still have a positive effect on medical marijuana being used as an opioid alternative, especially for a specific age demographic.

Reiman explained that, when it comes to the effects the state-legalization had on opioid use, “the group affected most is seniors.” The legalization of marijuana will open the door for many who never considered it an option strictly because of its legal status, and will eventually lead to the greater integration of medical marijuana in physician prescriptions for pain, as well as anti-addiction drugs.

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