Medical cannabis is preventing prescription drug disasters

Sam Woolfe

A study published by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that the legalisation of medical cannabis may be reducing the use of opioids.

Researchers analysed data on fatal car accidents in 18 states in the US, showing that states which passed a medical cannabis law between 1999 and 2013 saw a reduction in opioid involvement in such accidents, compared to states without medical cannabis available.

Previous research has highlighted that prescriptions for painkillers decreased in states that legalised cannabis for medical use, while such laws have also been linked to declining rates of opiate overdose and death.

There is a large body of evidence that supports the role of cannabis as an effective analgesic (a drug that relieves pain). Research has been published which explains how the chemical components of cannabis are able to reduce chronic pain, but without the adverse reactions associated with opioids.

The nature and scale of the opioid epidemic in the US is well-documented, with the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) pointing out that the total number of pain relievers prescribed in the US nearly quadrupled form 1999 to 2014, even though there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report. In addition, the US accounts for nearly 100% of the world’s use of hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin) and 81% of oxycodone (e.g. Percocet). Moreover, the cost of the US opioid epidemic is estimated at $78.5bn. 

If we compare the safety profile of opioids with cannabis, we can see how the study on declining opioid use may have a net benefit for public health. If we begin with the number of deaths from opioids versus cannabis, we can see plainly that, since records began, there has not been a single death from the use of cannabis. There are valid concerns about the role that high-potency cannabis plays in mental health conditions among vulnerable individuals, but in terms of physical harm, cannabis appears to be extremely safe. On the other hand, data released by the CDC underscores that, in 2014, prescription opioids killed nearly 19,000 people.

Figures published by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) showed that, of the 12.5 million Americans that had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million could be attributed to prescription pain relievers.

There are of course issues with cannabis dependence and the subsequent problems that follow from this, but research does not indicate that cannabis is physically addictive like opioids are.

This new research supports the argument that, as cannabis becomes available for pain treatment, patients will see it as preferable to opioids, which carry a higher risk of addiction, unpleasant complications and side-effects, overdose, and death. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still claims that cannabis has no medical value.

Drug companies are clearly worried by the falling use of opioids due to cannabis, as the company behind the painkiller fentanyl recently used $500,000 in a campaign against full legalisation of cannabis in Arizona.

With increasing evidence about cannabis being a safer and less addictive alternative to many opioids, the anti-cannabis position of the DEA and various drug companies only serves to maintain a profitable and harmful status quo.

Featured image via 7raysmarketing/Pixabay

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