An overreliance on opioids to treat chronic pain conditions has created a nationwide addiction crisis. As medical cannabis gains acceptance across the country, many physicians are hopeful that the drug will play a part in resolving that crisis.
Opioid addiction has become a full-blown epidemic in the US, and it’s putting medical practitioners in a practical and ethical bind. Even as it becomes clear that pain-relieving drugs like oxycodone and fentanyl can lead to dependence, use of more dangerous drugs like heroin, and overdose, medical professionals are struggling to find a safer alternative.
As the population of aging and elderly people in this country grows, more and more Americans are seeking out treatment for conditions associated with chronic pain. This has led to a steady increase in opioid prescriptions that’s only very recently begun to tail off — CNN reports that prescriptions of opioid drugs climbed from 112 million in 1992 to 28 million in 2012.
Doctors have made an effort to bring those numbers down in the last few years, but with overdose deaths totaling at 72,000 last year and 11.4 million Americans reporting abusing opioids in 2016 and 2017, it’s clear that far more work on this front remains to be done.
Luckily, a once controversial alternative to prescription opioids is rapidly gaining acceptance both politically and in the healthcare community: medical marijuana.
Support for Medical Cannabis Growing among Voters and Doctors
Medical marijuana initiatives passed during the 2018 midterm elections in states and cities across the country, including Michigan, Missouri, and in Ohio, all point towards changing attitudes on the drug among the population at large. That shift has been helped along by increasing interest within the medical community about the drug’s potential to make progress in the fight against opioid addiction.
“Studies indicate that medical cannabis may be an effective alternative to opioids for managing pain,” says Dr. Brendan Saloner, an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. “Increasing therapeutic use of cannabis could be one effective element of a prevention strategy that reduces patient reliance on prescription opioids.”
Associate Professor of Epidemiology Dr. Caleb Alexander agrees though he is cautious to add that more research is needed to confirm marijuana’s potential as an alternative pain-reliever. “The relationship between recreational and medical marijuana and opioids is not clear-cut,” he says, “but there’s an enormous interest in it because of the number of lives at stake.”
Large-Scale Research Planned on the Use of Medical Marijuana for Pain
Some early research into the viability of medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids is giving physicians like Dr. Alexander reason to be optimistic. A five-year study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states, where medical marijuana laws were already in place, saw an average of 6% fewer opioid prescriptions among Medicaid patients. Another study from the same journal found a drop of 8.5% in states with medical marijuana laws.
Unfortunately, other high-quality research on this topic is relatively sparse — marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, which makes it difficult to get funding for the proposed research. That’s why groups like the Cannabis Research Initiative at UCLA are conducting formal studies of THC and its ability to reduce both pain and opioid use among patients who had previously been prescribed opiate drugs.
While the fight against the addiction epidemic will likely require more than just the legalization of medical marijuana, anecdotal evidence already suggests it’s proving to be a critical and needed resource for those suffering from pain. As one patient dealing with chronic pain after being involved in a car crash told NBC News, “I turned to cannabis in lieu of pills and I’ve never turned back.”
Opioid addiction and overdose is a massive problem in this country, and there is a good reason to believe that the legalization of medical marijuana could make it possible for many patients suffering from chronic pain to reduce their reliance on opioid drugs. Though further research is needed on this topic, self-reported evidence suggests medical cannabis could be a viable substitute for dangerous, addictive drugs like oxycodone.
If you’re interested in medical marijuana to treat your chronic pain, schedule a consultation with the Lakewood Medical Clinic today. Our expert practitioners will help determine a regimen that will reduce your pain – as well as the need for painkillers.