The opioid crisis has gotten worse over the last few years. Since the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies assured the American public that opioids were non-addictive, opioid prescriptions for pain relief were doled out liberally and have increased dramatically. They have been misused to the point that we now have over 2 million people in the United States suffering from a substance abuse disorder. While our government is scrambling to find a solution for the opioid crisis, people continue to suffer. Those who can’t get opioid prescriptions refilled often seek heroin as a replacement with dire consequences. This current scenario is spurring another option – cannabis to help curb the opioid crisis.
Opioid Overdose Statistics
Over the last decade, opioid use has nearly doubled and opioid related deaths have increased exponentially. Over 30,000 deaths last year can be accounted to opioid overdoses, compared to the near 2500 opioid-related deaths in 2009. These are someone’s children, mothers, fathers, and loved ones.
But interestingly enough, something happened in the states that had implemented the legalization of marijuana. Opioid related deaths dropped, significantly, up to 25 percent. This was enough of a shift that two new studies, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, showed similar and irrefutable conclusions. Pro-cannabis states have fewer opioid prescriptions filled per capita than other states. And for the states that had legalized marijuana both medically and recreationally, those exhibited even more of a drop.
The Case for Bringing Cannabis as an Opioid Treatment Option
If legalizing marijuana has such a dramatic effect on opioid abuse, overdose and mortality, what is the next step? Mitigating the outcome of opioid abuse through traditional rehab has had mixed results.
Relapse is considered a failure of the treatment and patients are made to feel ashamed because the addiction is considered a moral failing as well. Some do well with this or other traditional kinds of treatment; however, everyone is different and each treatment should be adjusted to the individual. Drug addiction of any kind is not a character flaw or social safety problem. It should be treated as a chronic illness. Using cannabis as an alternative to traditional rehab or as part of the drug rehab treatment, instead of methadone or other drug therapy may be the viable answer.
Marijuana has been already approved for the treatment of several conditions, including cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma. Despite this, however, medical marijuana has been primarily used for treating chronic or severe pain. It is for this reason that the number of opioid related deaths has decreased in the states where it has become legal.
Expanding Marijuana’s Role in America’s Opioid Crisis
Despite the federal government’s policy on marijuana and its use, measures to expand medical marijuana access to current opioid users are now taking shape in multiple states. This could signal an evolving role for medical marijuana in the effort to address opioid abuse.
Pennsylvania has recently added opioid use disorder (OUD) as a qualifying condition for their medical marijuana program. New York and Illinois are also working on making it possible for opioid prescription holders to have access to medical marijuana. Lawmakers in Illinois passed a bill making anyone with a prescription for opioids eligible for its medical cannabis program. Even Canada, which just recently legalized recreational cannabis use, is looking into using marijuana to mitigate their opioid crisis, which has been the worst public health crisis since the HIV dilemma in the mid-80s.
How Does Medical Cannabis Work?
Medical marijuana has different components that address pain in patients. Delta-9 THC (Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (Cannabidiol), CBN (Cannabinol), and THCV (Tetrahydrocannabivarin) are four that researchers suggest can help. Many medical cannabis users, who are chronic pain sufferers, are already familiar with CBD which has no psychoactive ingredients but is effective against pain.
Nontraditional drug rehab programs using medical marijuana as a course of action gives the patient an opportunity to relieve their pain, and help make the detox experience more palatable while weaning off opioids. Not all patients are able to go through this type of unconventional treatment program. But drug use and overdose statistics dictate the need for cannabis use as an option for those that cannot achieve complete abstinence or for those wanting to eliminate their dependency on opioids.
The idea here is harm reduction. If the patient cannot stay away from opioids and continued use will lead to increased health issues or death, then reducing the risks through the use of a substance less harmful is the next logical step.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana as MAT for Opioid Addiction
Through the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018, the government is trying to fight the opioid crisis by making access to drug rehab easier for those who need it, as well as stem the influx of illegal drugs across the border. However, the individual states that have legalized marijuana have an opportunity to provide the best approach to the opioid crisis.
Medical cannabis is another option for the road to recovery from opioid addiction. That recovery starts when the patient has made the choice to quit using pain pills or heroin. Medical marijuana can be used as part of the detox process, as well as part of the ongoing treatment for opioid addiction and pain management. Knowing that another option exists, outside of prescription drugs such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone, either used exclusively or at all, supports a more positive treatment experience.