Can Medical Marijuana End the Opioid Crisis?

Medical marijuana has been in debate for quite a while now, with many health care professionals refusing to prescribe it. It’s illegal in some states, legal in others, and some organizations forbid prescriptions regardless of legality. In the past, opioid prescriptions were the go-to remedy for severe pain. Now, researchers are exploring different forms of treatment due to the high rate of misuse, death, and potential for addiction.

The Opioid Crisis

Beginning in the 90s, treatment for severe pain was lacking and there was an increased amount of pressure placed on doctors. Naturally, they looked for a solution, triggering pharmaceutical companies to push opioid painkillers under false marketing. Doctors started prescribing opioids, which is now resulting in unintentional consequences. Cases of misuse, addiction, and overdose deaths are rising to be higher than ever.

When physicians came to realize the true dangers of opioids, there was already significant damage done. They attempted to reduce the number of prescriptions, but patients then turned to heroin due to the addictive properties. This cycle continues today, and in 2015, the majority of the 52,000 drug overdose deaths involved opioid painkillers.

Many states are making moves to fight the opioid crisis with new regulations, rules, and efforts to pursue other treatment methods. Let’s take a look at Ohio as an example. In 2014, the state had the most opioid overdose deaths in the country and the number continues to increase due to heroin and fentanyl use. Governor John Kasich recently announced his proposal to limit prescriptions, calling for a 7-day supply limit for adults and 5-day supply for kids and teens. Kasich also states that he doesn’t see medical marijuana as a part of these efforts despite recent discoveries.

Medical Marijuana in the Opioid Crisis

Medical Marijuana is currently legal in 28 states and physicians are prescribing it for different conditions including those with symptoms of severe pain. A main fear in the legalization is that cannabis-related hospitalizations would increase. According to new research, there is no evidence to support this.

Researchers from the University of California San Diego analyzed hospitalization records from 1997-2014 in 27 states, 9 of which legalized medical marijuana in that timeframe. In states that offered medical marijuana, “hospitalization rates of people suffering from painkiller abuse and addiction dropped on average 23%.” It was also found that cases of opioid overdoses in states with legal cannabis decreased by about 13%.

Another study in 2014 found a 25% decrease in painkiller overdose deaths in states with legalized medical marijuana. Lastly, more recent research released in July 2016 in the Health Affairs journal led to the conclusion that physicians prescribed 1,800 fewer opioid prescriptions per year where medical cannabis is legal.

So, can medical marijuana end the opioid crisis?

No, not exactly. But, the results from these studies provide a basis for future research and more insight than before. We are far from ending the opioid crisis in America, but we are certainly taking steps in the right direction. With increased regulations, rules, and alternative treatments, opioid prescriptions and abuse rates should start to decline.


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