Medical Marijuana and the Opioid Epidemic
In Y 2014, more people died from drug overdoses than in any other year on record.
Over 60% of these deaths involved opioids. These powerful medications are often prescribed to people for chronic pain relief, although they often fail to provide relief.
Where they do excel is in causing addiction and overdose deaths, the rate of such deaths, including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin, have nearly quadrupled since Y 1999.
According to a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services, on an average day in the US more than 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed and 78 people die from a related overdose.
Further, each year $55-B is spent in health and social costs related to prescription opioid abuse, and another $20-B is spent in emergency department and in-patient care for opioid poisonings.
It is clear that urgent action needs to be taken to fight the opioid epidemic, including finding safer, more effective options for pain relief.
Medical marijuana, which has far fewer side effects and is effective for pain relief, and a new study will finally pit the 2 against each other to test marijuana’s potential as a replacement.
On a federal level, the Cannabis is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance alongside other Schedule 1 drugs like heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.
Marijuana received this label in Y 1970 when the Controlled Substance Act was enacted. This act labeled marijuana as a drug with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use” the latter of which, in particular, is being increasingly proven wrong.
It is a Catch-22 because the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has made it so difficult to conduct the marijuana research necessary to prove that it does have medicinal uses.
In the case of the upcoming study, which is being led by neuroscientist Emily Lindley at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, it took two years to meet federal requirements imposed on researchers looking to study marijuana.
For instance, the university had to spend about $15,000 to create a secure storage facility to contain the marijuana being used in the study, lest it fall into the wrong hands.
Marijuana is legal in the state of Colorado, for both recreational and medicinal use, so anyone over the age of 21 can drive to a dispensary and purchase up to an ounce of the green herb, “no questions asked.”
As The Atlantic reported: “The current status of medical marijuana research is rife with irony. As states have liberalized marijuana laws, they’ve created new opportunities: Lindley’s grant is part of $9-M Colorado awarded for medical research in 2014, using tax money from marijuana sales.
But since Cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, researchers have to jump through regulatory hoops lots of them to do legitimate research.”
Dr. Lindley’s study will involve 50 patients with chronic back and neck pain, who will receive marijuana, the opioid oxycodone or a placebo for their pain. They will be assessed for pain levels and treatment side effects in what will be the first study to directly compare marijuana with opioids for chronic pain relief.
The idea for the study came from a survey of University of Colorado Hospital Spine Center patients, 20% of those who responded said they used marijuana for pain relief, and 75% of them said it worked as well as or better than opioid pain relievers.
There are other signs that marijuana makes sense for chronic pain sufferers as well. In states where medical marijuana is legal, overdose deaths from opioids like morphine, oxycodone and heroin decreased by an average of 20% after one year, 25% after 2 years and up to 33% by years 5 and 6.
Among seniors, legalizing marijuana resulted in a reduction in the use of prescription drugs “for which marijuana could serve,” according to a study published in Health Affairs, and even led to reductions in spending in Medicare Part D, which pays for prescription drugs.
If every state legalized medical marijuana, the researchers estimated Medicare Part D savings of $400-M each year.
In the November election 9 states voted on marijuana measures, and all but 2 were approved
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