Medical marijuana could help end the opioid crisis, study says

AVALON, Fla. — A new report out of Florida argues medical marijuana can contribute mightily to ending the U.S. opioid crisis. Researchers believe medicinal cannabis can serve as a viable pain management alternative to opioids. After surveying thousands of people, study authors report patients using medical marijuana were in less pain and functioned better both physically and socially.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the study also notes the majority of those who took oxycodone, codeine, or another opioid for pain were able to stop or reduce their opioid use by switching to medical cannabis.

Overall, scientists from Emerald Coast Research, a contract research organization based out of Florida, and Florida State University College of Medicine say their findings indicate medical cannabis can potentially reduce opioid use in certain individuals under proper medical supervision. While more research is necessary, medical cannabis may be a powerful asset in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

Opioid addiction is only getting worse worldwide

The ongoing drug crisis has been a national problem for over a decade, but COVID-19 only made matters worse. In 2020, preventable opioid-related deaths increased by over 40 percent. Bigger picture, drug overdose deaths tied to opioids (including non-prescription drugs such as heroin) have increased more than eight-fold since 1999. Officials have connected over 550,000 U.S. deaths to opioids during that time (1999-2020).

Opioids are certainly good at suppressing pain, but that effect is highly addictive. While the U.S. may be the “epicenter” of the opioid crisis, it’s hardly exclusive to North America. Opioids are a worsening public health issue in numerous countries including Sweden, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, medical cannabis is now legal in most U.S. states and domestic patients are increasingly experimenting with cannabis in place of opioids to control pain. To research this topic further, study authors conducted a detailed survey of medical cannabis users shortly after its medical use was legalized in their home state.

A total of 2,183 participants took part in the survey. Each person was dealing with a variety of conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain. Most were using medical cannabis on a daily basis.

9 in 10 had a positive experience with medical marijuana

Survey responses revealed most patients (90.6%) found medical cannabis to be very or extremely helpful in treating their medical condition. A similar percentage (88.7%) said it was very or extremely important to their quality of life. Additionally, pain levels improved among 85.9 percent of the participants, while 84 percent said their health issues weren’t interfering with their normal social activities as much as before. More than half added that physical activities, like housework or running, became easier to handle than they had been previously.

Notably, 68.7 percent noted dealing with at least one side-effect, the most common being drowsiness, increased appetite, or dry mouth. Over half (61%) had been taking opioids before receiving a prescription for medical cannabis, with most of these individuals (70.5%) taking them for at least two years.

Four in five (79%) of those who had been taking opioids were able to successfully stop the habit or at least reduce their use. The number of people taking hydrocodone with acetaminophen (paracetamol) and oxycodone with acetaminophen — the two most commonly used opioids in the study — declined five-fold. More than one in 10 (11.47%) reported improved functioning in daily life.

“A large number of people feel the need to take opioid pain medication,” says researcher Carolyn Pritchett, a neuroscientist and biological psychologist, in a media release. “If there’s the option to instead use a medicine with less harmful side-effects, including a lower risk of overdose and death, then it should perhaps be considered. But more research, including studies that follow patients over time, is needed before substituting opioid painkillers for medical cannabis becomes commonplace.”

“Like any other medicine with side-effects, patients should be regularly monitored and assessed for adverse events, abuse disorder and other issues,” Dr. Pritchett concludes.

The report notes that two study authors have financial or business links to a medical cannabis company. One limitation to the study was the use of self-selected participants. The patients also completed surveys after-the-fact and may have been subject to recall bias.

The study is published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.

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