Can Cannabis Help With Our Opiate Crisis?

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78 People Die From Opiate-Related Overdoses in the US Each Day

In 2014, more people died from drug overdose than any year on record in the US. Six out of ten of these deaths were from opiates, about 47,000 people. As the Centers for Disease Control notes, "Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report."

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, on an average day in the United States:

  • More than 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed
  • 3,900 people initiate non-medical use of prescription opioids
  • 580 people initiate heroin use
  • 78 people die from an opioid-related overdose

Physicians nationwide are now re-evaluating prescribing practices that have contributed to the crisis. When physicians cut off prescriptions to these painkillers, many patients seek out other sources, by "doctor shopping" or going to illegal, underground markets for heroin. The drug has become readily available in even the smallest of American cities.

Can Cannabis Help With Our Opiate Crisis? | Seattle Central College - Continuing EducationIronically, heroin began as a pharmaceutical drug. The Bayer Company began an aggressive heroin marketing campaign in 1898, even marketing the product for children! But as science and understanding of the drug expanded, the therapeutic use was decreased.

However, sometimes the profit motives of a company outweigh the public's best interest; for example, Purdue Pharma once touted OxyContin as its new "miracle pill" for pain -- claiming that, because it was time-released, it posed little to no threat of addiction. They have since been fined $600 million dollars after pleading guilty of intentionally misleading the public about the risks it posed.

For all of the concerns about legal cannabis, we continue to learn about the positive benefits of legalized marijuana:

  • The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article in 2014 that indicated in states with legalized medical marijuana, there were 25% fewer overdose deaths related to prescription painkillers. Additionally, these states also see an equal percentage decrease in the number of opiate-based prescriptions being written.
  • Researchers have also analyzed traffic fatality information from 1999 - 2013 in eighteen US states. Data showed that those states that had legal medical marijuana had fewer fatal crashes of drivers with opioids in their system.

In general, people with access to medical marijuana take fewer prescription drugs. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Pain relievers such as Naproxen or Ibuprofen can significantly increase a person's risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Up to 90% of opioid users can experience constipation
  • Opiates can compromise the immune system
  • Opioid use can cause hormone imbalances

Prior to legal interventions, the medicinal benefits of cannabis had been known throughout the world for generations. We are only just now rediscovering many of its therapeutic benefits, and how it can be used to manage many chronic health conditions with significantly less side affects than synthetic drugs.

Simply identifying a problem and talking about it will not resolve it; we will need creative solutions and dedicated citizens if we hope to address the opiate crisis in the US. We've tried -- and failed -- to police addiction, so it's time to consider some new approaches to this problem.

What can you do?

  • Explore the data on medical marijuana that's already available
  • Advocate for further research studies
  • Learn more about how marijuana can help with pain management by taking our Pain Management and Cannabis Therapy online course
  • Discuss medical marijuana with the people you know
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about how medical marijuana might support your health goals, or find a healthcare provider who has the background and interest in exploring the topic with you

As access to medical cannabis expands throughout the country, I'm hopeful that it will have a positive impact on communities. It's already helping tens of thousands of people to manage their health, and it also seems to be saving lives. And that's a ray of hope that I will embrace.

Follow Trey Reckling:

Trey Reckling is the founder and operator of the Academy of Cannabis Science. He works in collaboration with Seattle Central College's Cannabis Institute to offer quality, science-based education to members of the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.