CDC Urges Doctors To Stop Testing Opioid Users for Marijuana

By John Lavitt 03/31/16

A crucial part of the CDC’s reasoning is that the availability of medical marijuana seems to cut painkiller overdose deaths by 25%.

CDC Urges Doctors To Stop Testing Opioid Users for Marijuana
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revised its screening guidelines for chronic pain patients so doctors can focus solely on the problem at hand.

Earlier this month, the CDC instructed doctors to stop testing chronic pain patients for marijuana use, SFGate reports. These tests can present unnecessary costs—not just in dollar amounts, but in having few health benefits and potential legal consequences for the patient. 

"Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear," says the updated CDC guideline for prescribing opioids. "For example, experts noted that there might be uncertainty about the clinical implications of a positive urine drug test for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)."

Routine drug testing of chronic pain patients are intended to monitor abusive behavior. But the agency has made it clear that moving forward, physicians should seek a drug test only when it's necessary.

"Restricting confirmatory testing to situations and substances for which results can reasonably be expected to affect patient management can reduce costs of urine drug testing, given the substantial costs associated with confirmatory testing methods," the CDC added.

A 2014 analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states that had approved medical cannabis had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws. Why does smoking pot reduce overdose deaths? For one, using cannabis provides an alternative to opioid painkillers, allowing chronic pain patients to take less opioids or stop taking them altogether. Research published this month in The Journal of Pain found that among patients with chronic pain who have access to legal cannabis, cannabis use was associated with a significant decrease in opioid use, an increased quality of life, and fewer side effects and medications used.  

This strongly suggests that cannabis is a viable alternative to painkillers for some patients. Not only that, cannabis has no lethal overdose level, while opioid overdoses are currently killing about 19 Americans everyday.

A CDC spokesperson informed Ellen Komp at California NORML that a positive test for THC that might not be helpful information for a doctor and could pose legal ramifications for the patient. "It is prudent for clinicians to restrict use of any medical test to situations when results of the test would be helpful in decisions about patient management," they said. "This is particularly important when testing or test results might have unintended negative consequences for patients. Some experts noted that in some cases, positive THC results might have legal or other consequences for patients but might not inform patient care decisions."

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.