Medical Grade Marijuana, The Solution to America’s Opioid Addiction?
Last Thursday, the FDA took an unprecedented step in an attempt to curb America’s opioid abuse crisis, but that does not yet mean that medical grade marijuana will be more seriously considered as an alternative to the highly addictive and deadly heroin like Rx drugs.
The US has a serious problem with Rx (prescription) pain medication.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about 78 Americans die daily around 28,600 a year from overdoses involving opioid-based painkillers. Those deaths are the most obvious human toll of an epidemic with healthcare and social costs to the country topping $55-B each year.
Arguably the pressing issue is the FDA’s questionable decision to go as far as removing an approved pain medicine from the market due to its wholly unintended use by some patients especially since there is no clear-cut replacement for individuals who suffer from chronic pain that doesn’t respond to other medications.
Where available, medical grade marijuana is already being used to treat a variety of conditions, including chronic pain.
Most importantly, though, a recent study found that medical grade marijuana use was associated with huge 64% decrease in opioid use, a sizable decrease in unwanted side effects stemming from prescription painkillers, as well as a healthy uptick in quality of life among the study’s participants.
The researchers noted that patients were essentially substituting medical grade marijuana for their Rx’d opioid-based drugs in large numbers in many states.
The peer-reviewed scientific research so far has shown that medical grade marijuana is also far less prone to abuse than opioid-based painkillers.
A study conducted by two leading pain clinics in Israel, for instance, found that chronic pain sufferers were far more likely to engage in problematic levels of use with opioids than with medical marijuana.
The Key question is whether medical marijuana can effectively treat chronic pain, and thus displace highly addictive pain medications.
While the jury is out on this because of the political and regulatory roadblocks that make cannabis research nearly impossible in the United States, the fact of the matter is that opioids do not have a great track record at controlling pain long term.
The physiological tolerance most patients eventually build up to opioid-based painkillers is a root cause in Physicians prescribing ever more potent drugs like Endo’s (NASDAQ:ENDP) Opana ER that are indicated for patients who have essentially run out of other options.
The current political climate in the US does not make this country fertile ground for research into medical grade marijuana for any indication. Even if it was, though, bio-pharma companies may not readily invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the clinical studies required to define its risk-reward profile in chronic pain suffers.
Most ongoing studies have focused on cannabis-based derivatives aimed at conditions like epilepsy, where patients cannot readily dose themselves during an attack.
The cost of pursuing a cannabis-based medication that might displace opioids in the chronic pain setting, and make a real dent in the ongoing opioid crisis, likely outweighs any potential commercial benefits by a wide margin.
If the numbers did work, the leaders in the field would already have strong clinical studies underway already, based on the huge size of the chronic pain market.
Notably, the FDA’s decision to force Endo to take Opana ER off the market might be a popular move to make in light of America’s out-of-control Rx painkiller problem. But it will do virtually nothing to change the situation in the streets.
The obvious alternative that already has some compelling scientific evidence in its favor, medical grade marijuana, lacks the support of politicians, regulators, and Big Pharma as a whole.
The FDA’s unexpected and dramatic action against Opana ER will not be a significant catalyst for the emerging medical marijuana industry.