Is Marijuana a Viable Plan for Curbing the Opioid Epidemic?

Is Marijuana a Viable Plan for Curbing the Opioid Epidemic?

Since the national opioid epidemic kills almost 91 Americans every day, everyone is scrambling to come up with solutions to stop it. One of the more novel—and controversial—approaches being bandied about is using marijuana to wean people off their opioid medications and to treat the pain they may have originally taken the drug for. But is this a truly viable plan? Some doctors and researchers give it a … definite maybe.

In the 28 states and Washington, D.C. where marijuana is currently legal, the number of hospitalizations for opioid painkiller abuse dropped an average of 23% when medical marijuana was used, and overdose admissions dropped an average of 13%. Another study conducted on the subject found that opioid-related deaths dropped by 25% in states where medical marijuana is legalized.

One of the researchers, Dr. Esther Choo, commented that, “It is becoming increasingly clear that battling the opioid epidemic will require a multi-pronged approach and a good deal of creativity…could increased liberalization of marijuana be part of the solution? It seems plausible.”

However, because cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug (meaning the federal government says it has no medicinal value), doctor can’t technically prescribe it for any kind of medical treatment, or indeed, even talk about it. Also, there are federal limitations to what research can be conducted, so it is difficult to definitively prove if it’s a viable aid to reducing the opioid problem.

And, of course, marijuana use carries its own risks. For instance, there is a link between increased motor vehicle accidents and cannabis use. It’s also connected to a greater risk of developing schizophrenia or some other form of psychoses in those who abuse the drug.

For those who are susceptible or predisposed to substance dependence, trading one addiction for another doesn’t seem like a great solution either. So, the idea is clearly fraught with problems… yet it carries a thread of hope for the populations devastated by the opioid addiction.

At this point, it is unlikely that using medical marijuana to treat opioid substance abuse will gain any kind of mainstream traction, but those of us who work in the addiction treatment field would do well to think through these issues and have the hard conversations about what will really help people overcome addiction to drugs of all kinds.

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