Can Medical Cannabis Help Solve the Opioid Crisis?
Medical cannabis may provide a much-needed alternative to prescription opioids.
Posted April 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The misuse of prescription opioids for chronic pain relief has resulted in high rates of addiction and overdose.
- New research indicates that medical cannabis can be an effective painkiller and even a preferred agent for many with chronic pain.
- The medical establishment has been slow to integrate such research into everyday practice.
Today is April 20th, otherwise known as 4/20 day or "Weed Day," a day that has become associated with cannabis use across the world. But it also provides an opportunity to shed light on interesting recent research surrounding medical cannabis, some of which indicates that the judicious use of medical cannabis could help reduce the misuse of prescription opioids.
Understanding prescription opioid misuse
Prescription opioids are a class of painkillers often prescribed by physicians for people experiencing chronic pain. Such pain can derive from a variety of sources, including accidents, injuries, or military service, as well as from the wear and tear of everyday life.
Despite their ability to dull and lessen pain, prescription opioids have many side effects; specifically, they can be addictive. This can lead to opioid misuse by unwary individuals who started taking opioids on a doctor’s advice in a sincere effort to control pain. One survey indicates that over 10 million Americans misuse prescription opioids. Such misuse can be very dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that opioids were implicated in around 450,000 deaths in the U.S. from 1999 to 2018, and around 35,000 Americans died from overdoses related to the misuse of prescription opioids in 2019 alone. Moreover, the misuse of prescription opioids can lead to severe impairments in areas such as employment, education, and relationships.
Importantly, surveys indicate higher rates of prescription opioid misuse in men than women; men account for around 70 percent of opioid overdose deaths. Some research suggests that men are disproportionately driven to prescription opioid misuse to control pain incurred in dangerous workplaces such as manufacturing, transportation, the military, or law enforcement — fields in which men comprise the vast majority of the workforce.
Such men may be prescribed opioids by physicians and become slowly addicted over time. This can lead them to seek greater dosages from their doctors or to try obtaining prescription opioids on the black market, contributing to more severe addiction and a downward spiral resulting in the aforementioned impairments and overdoses.
Can medical cannabis help?
A growing corpus of research indicates that certain strains of medical cannabis (particularly strains rich in cannabidiol) have powerful pain-killing properties and can be a beneficial agent in chronic pain management. Indeed, some emerging research suggests that medical cannabis can provide a much-needed alternative to prescription opioids and may even mitigate some aspects of the opioid crisis.
For example, one seminal research study showed that U.S. states with medical cannabis laws had significantly lower rates of opioid overdose deaths compared to U.S. states without such laws, implying that pain sufferers often choose medical cannabis over opioids when such a choice is available.
This is consistent with my own research on Canadian military veterans living with chronic pain. Many reported that they were originally prescribed opioids for pain relief but that the side effects became intolerable. Given that cannabis is legal in Canada, they decided to use medical cannabis instead, which brought many benefits. This is illustrated in the veterans’ own words in the short but poignant video below:
The way forward
A solid body of research indicates that the misuse of prescription opioids remains a massive health and social issue in the U.S. Meanwhile, a related body of research shows that medical cannabis can be an effective pain killer and is a preferred agent for many people living with chronic pain.
However, the medical establishment has been slow to integrate such knowledge into everyday practice, perhaps due to (i) lack of training in medical cannabis; (ii) enduring stigmas associated with cannabis use and cannabis users; and (iii) concerns about prescribing a substance of ambiguous legal status. All this implies a need for concerted efforts to destigmatize cannabis use and raise awareness about emerging medical research on the topic, with such efforts targeted at medical practitioners and other influential stakeholders (e.g., teachers and employers), as well as the general public.
This could help create a climate in which medical cannabis becomes an accepted and legitimate option for people suffering from chronic pain, providing an alternative to opioid prescriptions. This, in turn, may help mitigate some aspects of the opioid crisis.
Let’s weed out the cannabis myths now.