Is Cannabis the Answer to America’s Opioid Crisis?

An editorial published by the Los Angeles Times on Monday posed a question that no one seems to be asking about the nation’s opioid epidemic: why aren’t we talking about medical marijuana as an alternative?

More than 64,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, and that number is rapidly increasing. In 2016, the number of overdose deaths rose more than 22 percent over the 52,404 drug deaths in 2015, and it’s the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Opioids include drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and heroin. As highly effective painkillers, opioids are one of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. Unfortunately, they’re highly addictive and effective pain relief requires increasing doses, raising the likelihood of overdose.

The risk of addiction and overdose associated with opioids is staggering, but there’s evidence that cannabis could be an effective substitute. Both opioids and cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, block pain signals in our nervous system. Unlike opioids, cannabis is non-addictive and has comparable therapeutic effects with none of the dangerous side-effects. Plus, CBD can reduce drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms, helping to reduce the likelihood of relapse.

Amanda Reiman, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, released a survey earlier this year examining the opioid-based and non-opioid based pain medication. 97% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they could decrease their use of opioid painkillers when consuming cannabis. And 92% said that they agreed or strongly agreed that they prefer cannabis to treat their medical condition.

“The treatment of pain has become a politicized business in the United States. The result has been the rapidly rising rate of opioid-related overdoses and dependence,” she said. “Cannabis has been used throughout the world for thousands of years to treat pain and other physical and mental health conditions.”

Marijuana has negligible overdose risk and has shown a host of medical benefits, especially in treating chronic pain, yet it remains an illegal, schedule I substance. States that have legalized medical marijuana show decreased opioid use and decreased opioid overdose deaths.

About 175 people die in the U.S. every day due to opioid overdose–are the risks worth any beneficial effects provided by the drug? Should opioids even be categorized as a medicine?