Opioids are regularly prescribed for patients to help them manage pain after surgeries and for those who suffer from chronic pain. However, the side effects and the addictive qualities of these pain killers have led patients, and some doctors as well, to seek alternative forms of treatment for pain. Marijuana has been known to have painkilling properties and could possibly be the alternative pain reliever to help move society away from the usage of opioids. So why are so many hesitant to give marijuana a try?
Opioids and pain
Opioids, also referred to as narcotics, are a class of drugs that can be obtained by prescription from a doctor or illegally “off the street.” Opioids are found naturally in the poppy plant, opium. Opium has numerous effects on the body and brain, one such effect is the blockage of pain signals between the brain and the body. Hence, opioids are typically prescribed for the effectiveness in treating moderate to severe pain.
However, the less appealing qualities of opioids are the cause for concern when prescribing these drugs. Opioids provide temporary relief to pain. Prolonged usage can increase your tolerance to the drugs requiring higher and higher doses to achieve the desired affect — pain relief. This prolonged usage can lead to dependency which can then lead to addiction.
Opioid addiction is an epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved opioids. On average, about 130 Americans are dying daily from opioid drug overdoses. These statistics show there is a great need for an effective alternative treatment for pain.
Why choose medical marijuana over opioids
Marijuana has been around for years and used to “treat” a number of ailments. There is more research coming out about the benefits of medical marijuana, but research is limited due to a lack of approval from the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for medical conditions.
Medical marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant. There are over 100 different chemicals in the plant. These chemicals are called cannabinoids, and they each have a different effect on the body. The chemicals most used in medicinal marijuana are tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol. THC is the main psychoactive chemical compound found in marijuana.
In experimental treatments with animals, cannabinoids appeared to block peripheral nerve pain, a promising discovery for pain treatment. Some studies show that when used in combination with opioids, cannabinoids can enhance the pain-relieving abilities of opioids while limiting some of their side effects. Because testing on humans can pose some difficulty due to ethical and logistical reasons, the true effectiveness of marijuana use in pain treatment cannot be conclusively determined at this time.
The statistics surrounding legal medical marijuana usage reveal hope for relief to the opioid addiction epidemic in the U.S. today. In states where medical marijuana is legal studies are showing a decrease in daily opioid use. Opioid overdose mortality rates have decreased by 25% over states with no legal medical access. These results continue to strengthen as time progresses.
The Legalization Barrier
With so much potential for positive use in the medical field, many are still hesitant to turn to medical marijuana as a solution.
Thirty-three states, along with the District of Columbia, have approved the use of medical marijuana. However, the FDA has yet to approve marijuana as a treatment for medical conditions, with one exception.
In 2018, the FDA approved the cannabidiol, Epidiolex, a medicine prescribed to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy — Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet Syndrome. These two forms of epilepsy usually show up in early childhood and can be life-threatening. Two man-made forms of cannabinoid medicine — dronabinol and nabilone — have been approved to treat nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy cancer treatment.
The hesitation comes from concerns of lung damage when marijuana is inhaled. Mariuana has some of the same chemicals that are found in tobacco. Also, some experts believe there is a possibility of dependence with increased frequency of use and higher THC levels. There are fears of the affects on adolescents as they are exposed to legalized marijuana. The limited amount of research and inconclusive results have also had an impact on legalization.