Opioids vs Cannabis
As the medical benefits of marijuana are being increasingly accepted as fact, our nation faces the stark realization that we are in the midst of a prescription-based opioid crisis. Every week, we read the news stories about a blue collar town in Pennsylvania destroyed by addiction or shake our heads at the videos that cross our Facebook feeds depicting one or more adults passed out in a car, high, a toddler waiting helplessly in the back seat. Unlike marijuana, these prescription opioids are more affective at creating zombified addicts than treating long-term pain, and users often switch to injecting heroin when they no longer have access to or can no longer afford the pain pill they were originally prescribed. How do we clean up this tragic mess? Marijuana reform advocates believe legalization of cannabis could be our saving grace, but is this a realistic goal, or a delusion of grandeur?
“Listen, don’t give me any of that oxycodone garbage. … I’m just going to smoke weed.” After hearing the same thing from several of his patients, James Feeney, M.D., decided to look into it himself. He is currently beginning a study on marijuana, opioids and the treatment of acute pain in rib injuries, and says, “The big focus from my standpoint is that this is an attempt to end the opioid epidemic.” However, he might have trouble getting the comparison he is looking for: his test subjects are allowed to pick their pain treatment and, so far, all have gone green. This is a growing trend, as research shows prescription drug use for symptoms or conditions that can be treated by weed decreases markedly in states with medical marijuana. Not only are patients proactively choosing marijuana over opioids, it’s helping addicts cut back. In states with legal medical marijuana, overdoses are almost 25% fewer than non-medical states, and substance abuse treatment for painkillers goes down by up to 35%. For this reason, New Mexico state legislatures passed a measure to add opioid addiction to its list of approved medical marijuana conditions, but the measure was vetoed by Governor Susana Martinez in April, 2017.
Of course, the drug industry isn’t prepared to sit back and let medical marijuana sweep the market. One of the main difficulties in studying marijuana’s effect on pain is that it is classified as a Schedule I drug, along with bath salts and GHB, and pharmaceutical lobbyists are determined it stays there. Though Donald Trump has indicated he supports medical marijuana, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a much tougher stance, calling it, “hyped,” and, in tragic irony, suggesting it is not all that different from heroin. Even with this pushback, activists are optimistic that marijuana’s sheer revenue potential is too great for the federal government to pass over, and that, for this reason, reclassifying to Schedule II or III will happen soon.
“The data is clear. Cannabis is effective at treating pain, including hard-to-treat pain conditions like neuropathy, and arguably represents a safer alternative to opioids,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. The patients who inspired Dr. Feeney to look into marijuana instead of opioids are doing, in his opinion, “pretty well.” Many opioid-prescribed patients, on the other hand, seek pain relief and instead, receive a lifetime of anguish and addiction. So, while marijuana being the cure for the opioid epidemic sounds like a hippy pipe dream at first, evidence suggests it is anything but.