Can Cannabis Really Solve the Opioid Crisis?

By Joan Eberhardt

A lot of people, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have questions about cannabis, what it can and can’t do, and if it can be beneficial in helping people get past their opiate addictions. Recently Sessions said he was astonished to learn that people thought the legalization of marijuana could help solve the heroin crisis, but he went on to say he considers doing so trading “one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.”

“Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” – Jeff Sessions

Sessions has been a hard-line anti-marijuana crusader for decades, and even went so far as to say he thought the KKK was alright “until he learned they smoked pot.” So it’s fair to say that Sessions has an extreme opinion on marijuana.

Marijuana is legal for medical use in 28 states and the District of Columbia, and in 8 states for recreational use, and many of those states, including Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida, also have had serious problems with opiates, especially in less affluent and rural communities. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as the perfectly legal prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. A study in 2015 found that America is number one in the world for prescription opiate use, far more than any other country. Americans are prescribed opiates about six times the rate of patients in Portugal and France, and we consume 99 percent of the world’s supply of the drug hydrocodone.  Part of the reason for that has to do with America’s lax regulations on pharmaceutical marketing.

Even though it’s prescribed by a doctor, prescription painkillers are serious drugs. In 2015  there were 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin. That same year Huffpost was unable to find a single death directly related to a marijuana overdose. One investor in Ohio, the state that has been hit hardest by the opioid crisis, is lobbying to include opiate withdrawal under the state’s medical marijuana laws. There’s some pretty good evidence to suggest that marijuana could be a helpful tool in the war against opiate overdoses. States that enact medical marijuana laws see a 25 percent reduction in deaths from opiate overdoses in the first year. States with medical marijuana laws also saw fewer prescription medication use overall among Medicare part D users.

Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the most restrictive and therefore the hardest to study. Scientists have to apply for a license through the federal government, a process that could take years. Some hospitals, especially those in states with robust medical marijuana programs, are self-funding their own mini-medical trials. In Connecticut, a state with medical marijuana, one doctor saw so many patients turning down his offer for prescription painkillers, saying instead they would prefer marijuana that the hospital, in response, is running an acute pain trial. The trial will study the difference between patients with rib injuries who would rather use marijuana, and those who would prefer prescription opiates. So far a few patients have signed on, but none who chose to use opiates over marijuana.

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