America faces a crisis of terrible proportions. Opioid abuse kills 128 people a day. From 1998 to 2018, 450,000 people have lost their lives in this opioid epidemic. Experts expect the numbers to rise; projections for 2016 to 2025 estimate more than 700,000 deaths. In 2017 alone, 47,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. This epidemic is crippling; not only does it kill in droves, but it also costs America $78.5 billion a year. This cost comes from healthcare, the involvement of law enforcement and the judicial system, lost productivity for individuals, and addiction treatment. The opioid epidemic is an enormous problem that only seems to get worse.
One of the driving forces behind opioid use is pain relief. People that suffer from chronic pain sometimes have nowhere to turn but opioids to manage their conditions. From prescription use, opioids can lead to addiction and, in some cases, the use of more potent and dangerous opioids.
What if there was a better way to treat pain? The legalization of marijuana has been sweeping the nation for both medical and recreational use. Research shows that marijuana can be an excellent pain reliever and help people manage the stress of living with chronic pain. Could the use of marijuana help stymie the flood that is America’s opioid addiction?
If you are struggling with opioid addiction and you’re wondering if medicinal marijuana could be an alternative, please reach out to us at (815) 384-1376. We have the resources you need to end your addiction and find a better, healthier way forward.
Opioids: A Misunderstood Menace
The opioid family includes a variety of drugs, some commonplace, others dangerous. You may have an opioid in your medicine cabinet right now – such as prescription pain killers oxycodone and hydrocodone. Less commonly prescribed by doctors is fentanyl, which has use for people who have built up a tolerance to less potent pain killers.
On the dangerous side of the opioid scale is heroin. Drugs like morphine, opium, and codeine are very similar and come from the opiate family. They affect you similarly as opioids, the only difference being from where they derive.
Opiates come from the poppy plant and are considered natural. Opioids are at least partially synthetic. These two families of drugs are so similar that the terms are used interchangeably.
Opioids work by affecting how your brain processes pain. It attaches to nerve endings and tells your mind to block pain signals. It also causes a euphoric feeling, which makes you feel happy and relaxed. Medically, opioids are used primarily as pain killers. Doctors usually prescribe opioids when suffering from injuries, surgeries, or long-term illnesses like cancer.
Common opioids that people abuse are:
- Oxycodone (OxyContin)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
An Epidemic Decades in the Making
There have been three main waves of opioid-related overdose deaths in America. The first started in the 90s with a rise in prescription pain killer use. Pharmaceutical companies began pushing sales of opioid pain killers. They reassured the healthcare community that patients would not get addicted, so doctors started prescribing them. They work exceptionally well to relieve pain and stress, and there was no worry for the patient about addiction. This belief led to extraordinary rates of prescriptions. When researchers discovered that people were becoming addicted to their pain relievers, it was too late.
The second wave peaked around 2015 due to heroin overdoses. Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that causes intense feelings of bliss and pain relief. Opioid addiction in this form is compounded by mixed substance abuse. Users often drink alcohol or consume cocaine when using heroin, which drastically increases death by overdose. Using other drugs also increases your risk of becoming addicted; prescription opioid users are 40 times more likely to develop an addiction to heroin.
We are currently in the third wave due to the increased consumption of illegally manufactured fentanyl. Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid – 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine – prescribed by doctors. The danger comes from homemade fentanyl. Some drug dealers cut other substances with fentanyl, like heroin or cocaine, because it takes a minimal amount to get high. Overdose deaths have been rising because people don’t realize how much fentanyl they’re taking. Fentanyl is particularly dangerous because a dose that will get you high and a dose that will end your life is almost identical.
Opioid Addiction Has Reached a Crisis
In America, about 117 million people experience chronic pain, and around seven million of them use opioids to manage it. It’s estimated that between 20 and 30% of opioid users are abusing the opioids they take. Abuse means they are taking painkillers in a manner inconsistent with their prescription or without a valid prescription. Of the people that take opioids for pain, about 10% of them will become addicted. Over 2 million Americans have an opioid use disorder. Even worse, about 5% of those with an opioid use disorder will try heroin.
However, things are getting a little better. According to the Center for Disease Control, deaths related to opioid use have dropped by 2% from 2017 to 2018. Deaths from prescription opioid use decreased even further by 13.5%. The drug scape is always changing, so while some drugs’ effects lessen, others rise. Deaths caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl increased by 10%.
Currently, a rise in fentanyl is the driving force behind the mortality of the opioid epidemic. However, there are always new substances lurking around the corner, waiting for the chance to strike. One of the latest opioids starting to make itself known is carfentanil. Dangerous in the extreme, it is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more than fentanyl. It’s so strong that first responders must be careful not to touch it. The fatal dose of this drug is minuscule; 2 milligrams can kill 100 people. Unlike other opioid overdoses (including heroin), carfentanil seems to resist the lifesaving effects of naloxone.
Marijuana: A Safer Alternative or More Substance Abuse?
Pain is a tricky thing to deal with. While opioids are a useful option for treating pain, they come with a host of adverse side effects. Aside from the high risk of addiction, opioid pain killers can cause drowsiness, constipation, nausea, and slowed breathing. Treating pain is one of the most common reasons why people visit their doctors. With the opioid epidemic growing worse by the year, researchers have been looking for new, healthier ways to treat pain.
Marijuana has long been lauded as a way to manage pain, and the research seems to back it. Testimonial evidence has been growing for the pain relief benefits of marijuana: cancer patients, migraine sufferers, and people with movement disorders have reported that marijuana helped ease their pain. It’s also been reported to help arthritis symptoms.
Unlike opioids, marijuana has relatively few side effects. Depending on how its administered, marijuana can cause nausea and altered senses. It has been reported to negatively affect children and teens’ cognitive development and would rarely apply for pain relief.
The research might look good, and there is ongoing public support for pot legalization, but marijuana has its critics, too. The most common reasons not to legalize weed are its addictive properties, unproven therapeutic benefits, health risks from smoking, and its potential association with spurring mental health disorders like schizophrenia.
The research for the benefits of medicinal marijuana is ongoing but promising. Depending on the state you live in, you should talk to your doctor about your options if you’re suffering chronic pain.
Which states have legalized marijuana?
As of 2020, 47 states have approved the use of medicinal marijuana for specific medical conditions. The only states that have yet to legalize marijuana are South Dakota, Nebraska, and Idaho. Of those 47 with legal medicinal use, 11 have approved recreational use for adults over 21 years of age.
Despite this, marijuana is still a Schedule I substance under federal law. The federal government classifies drugs into 5 different categories. At the bottom of the classifications are Schedule V drugs, or substances that the government considers low-risk for addiction and high medical value. Opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl are considered Schedule VI because of their use in healthcare but are recognized as extremely dangerous for abuse and addiction. As a Schedule I drug, the government acknowledges no medical benefit from marijuana use.
Have legal marijuana states seen a change in opioid addiction?
The question of whether marijuana is effective against the opioid epidemic is contested. The government is struggling against the epidemic and the deaths that come with it. Subsequently, they’ve been looking for ways to curb the rising death toll. The Center for Disease Control has focused their plans on educating the risks of opioids and supporting state healthcare providers with better resources to combat local problems.
On the one hand, research shows a decrease in opioid consumption when marijuana is used. These studies also show a reduction of opioid overdose and hospitalization. A study performed in 2014 showed a drop in the disastrous effects of opioid use. It was suggested that people would choose marijuana for pain over opioids if given a chance.
However, contradictory research suggests that states with legalized marijuana have a higher number of opioid abusers and overdose deaths. One Stanford study indicates that there is no correlation between the availability of medical marijuana and opioid use. The study suggests that the 2014 research had promising results because of the states that had legalized marijuana at that point. These were liberal, wealthier states with better addiction infrastructure. The Stanford study suggests that, as other states legalized the medical use of marijuana, the results from 2014 have changed.
The Complexities of the Opioid Epidemic
The opioid epidemic in America has reached critical levels in terms of mortality and cost for the public. It is a complicated issue decades in the making that simply by pulling a single string can’t be unraveled. People are understandably desperate to find anything that can turn this epidemic around.
Medical marijuana may or may not offer a healthier way to manage pain. The simple truth is that more research must be done. If you are struggling with chronic pain or are addicted to opioids, the best thing to do is talk to your doctor or another healthcare professional. Opioid abuse can be particularly hard to overcome, but having help can make all the difference.
We can provide you guidance and tools for life-changing recovery. Please, don’t hesitate to contact us.