Weed Has The Ability To Alleviate The Opioid Crisis, Evidence Suggests

By Victoria Kim 11/03/16

A new report cites multiple studies and personal accounts that favor marijuana as an opioid alternative.

Weed Has The Ability To Alleviate The Opioid Crisis, Evidence Suggests
Photo: Washington Post

The evidence is in. A new report by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA)—a national trade association for the cannabis industry—provides a comprehensive review of the current research examining cannabis and its impact on opioid use.

With drug overdose now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States—largely driven by prescription painkillers and heroin—everyone from the federal government to rural communities are searching for answers to the nation’s crisis of opioid addiction and overdose.

The report “Cannabis: A Promising Option for the Opioid Crisis” was released Monday. It draws from numerous studies and personal accounts from people for whom cannabis was a solution and a viable alternative to pills.

Chart from Washington Post

One study cited in the NCIA report, from 2014, looked at the rate of opioid overdose mortality. That study examined death certificate data from all 50 states from 1999 to 2010, and 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.”

Another study, from the July issue of the journal Health Affairs, looked at medical marijuana’s impact on the amount of prescriptions being doled out, by analyzing scripts filled by Medicare Part D (which covers the cost of prescription drugs) from 2010 to 2013. The researchers found that prescriptions for pain medication dropped by 1,826 daily doses. And prescriptions for ailments that could also be treated with marijuana—such as depression, anxiety, glaucoma, nausea, and seizures—decreased significantly as well.

In addition, the University of Georgia researchers who conducted that study found that state medical pot programs “were responsible for $165.2 million in Medicare prescription savings in 2013” as well as $178.5 million in 2014 Medicaid prescription savings, according to the report.

Not only is cannabis emerging as a viable and safer alternative to painkillers, the report discusses its role in helping people come off pain meds as well.

“We saw patients using cannabis decreasing and stopping their use of opioids without even being asked to,” said Dr. Dustin Sulak, a Maine osteopathic physician and medical cannabis specialist who is quoted in the report. He said it was unprecedented.

A survey of 542 of Sulak’s patients who used both cannabis and opioids further illustrated this phenomenon: 39% of patients decreased their opioid dosage, and another 39% stopped using opioids altogether.

The results of other studies cited in the NCIA report confirm that among those who use cannabis, there’s a marked decrease in opioid use, dependence, and treatment admissions. Cannabis has also been shown to alleviate painful addiction withdrawal symptoms.

Several U.S. states have used this information to implement policies that acknowledge the benefits of cannabis—especially as the death toll from prescription painkillers rises. States like Vermont and Minnesota have chosen to allow chronic pain sufferers to access medical cannabis. 

Marijuana is not a miracle cure nor is it for everybody. But according to the research—and the fact that there's not one recorded fatal overdose from cannabis—it's clear that it is a much safer alternative.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr