More than 130 people die every day in the United States from the opioid crisis. The misuse and addiction to opioid medications such as prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, has more than doubled in the U.S. over the past decade. The problem hits home with Michigan residents. In 2017, there were 2,033 opioid related overdoses, an average of 5.5 people per day. While there are many substance abuse programs available in the state, many never receive treatment.
In 2018, more Americans died from opioid overdose than from any other form of accidental death, including car accidents. Despite years of researching the most effective way to treat opioid use disorders (OUD), opioid overdose deaths remain stagnant, and relapse is often likely to occur.
New research indicates that cannabis may assist individuals in breaking their opioid use disorders while also giving them the pain relief they need. There are three vital roles cannabis can play in fighting the opioid crisis.
Cannabis can treat chronic pain before turning to opioids if state laws allow it. Additionally, marijuana can serve as part of an opioid reduction strategy for people already taking or addicted to opioid medications. Lastly, cannabis may help during addiction treatment. It can also serve in conjunction with other medication-assisted therapies (MAT), like methadone or suboxone to increase rates of success.
Cannabis as a Tool to Combat the Opioid Crisis
Cannabis is a promising pain treatment and has also been used to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis, seizures, and certain mental health disorders. Roughly 80 percent of medical cannabis users, according to research published in 2015, reported substituting it for prescription medications. A study by the University of Michigan also found that opioid use decreased by 64 percent among chronic pain patients who participated in medical cannabis.
The ability to access a legal marijuana market has also been linked to drastically lower opioid-related overdose rates, compared to prohibitionists states. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), states that legalize medicinal marijuana had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed per year under Medicare Part D. This study compared this to states without medical cannabis laws, a 2018 JAMA study reports.
Similar to opioids, cannabis and cannabinoids (the chemicals it is made of) interact on like receptors in the brain and spinal cord, which help to alleviate pain. These common signaling pathways in the brain include dopamine channels and the brain’s reward system. This plays a significant role in an individuals’ drug tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
However, unlike opioid medications, marijuana has lesser addiction potential and virtually no deaths related to cannabis overdose.
Preventing Opioid Overdose with Cannabis
One of the significant issues with opioid medications is the gradual increase in daily dose. This causes the drug to remain effective at treating chronic pain. However, this can quickly lead to high tolerance to opioids and cause the beginning of an addiction cycle or an accidental overdose.
The use of cannabis in conjunction with prescription opioid medication may help to ease this problem. Since cannabinoids and opioids share therapeutic properties, cannabis can lower opioid side-effects, cravings, and withdrawal severity as well as enhance their pain relieving properties. This allows for administered lower doses of opioids, and by extension, lessens the risk of overdose.
Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal cannabis. Research published in JAMA shows that opioid mortality rates drop by a near 25 percent when a state legalizes cannabis. Additionally, that percentage only increases the longer the state has these laws enacted.
How Cannabis Can Help Treat Opioid Abuse and Addiction
Withdrawing from opioids is one of the most painful and horrific experiences individuals can go through. This is one of the reasons why relapse is so common among those with opioid use disorders.
Addiction and recovery professionals are now reporting that cannabis can help lessen opioid withdrawal symptoms. This makes it easier for individuals to kick opioids to the curb for good. One of the common triggers for drug relapse is a negative mood or anxiety. Furthermore, cannabis helps temper both negative feelings and anxiety, which can further keep an individual from relapse.
There is significant evidence that cannabis has a large role to play in the opioid crisis. Some rehabilitation programs have incorporated it into their treatment plans. This model could serve as a useful way to help people transition from opioid misuse and abuse to engage in complete sobriety.