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An Unlikely Alternative to Prescription Painkillers

While we’re spending countless hours and resources in laboratories developing the next generation of painkillers, the answer to the opioid epidemic might be right in front of our faces. A recent study found that opioid overdoses are dropping by huge amounts – nearly 25% in certain states. So what links these states together, and why do they all share far lower rates of opioid overdose? They all have legalized medical marijuana, and some research suggests a link between a decrease in opioid overdose and the availability of marijuana as a painkiller.

This research, completed by the assistant professor of medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, found that from 1999 to 2010, rates of opioid overdose in states with medical marijuana available were 25% lower than those who had yet to legalize marijuana as a medical painkiller. While the study couldn’t prove causation, the correlation was strong enough to warrant further research. A study from the University of Michigan found that those who used medical marijuana to treat pain had cut their opioid use by over 50%. Another study conducted at the Washington University Pain Center found that almost half of chronic pain sufferers stopped taking opioids after beginning medical marijuana treatment plans. While the research looks promising, marijuana isn’t quite the perfect drug we’ve been looking for.

Marijuana doesn’t cause addictions and withdrawals as serious as those produced by opioids, but it does present its own set of unique side effects that aren’t always visible or easy to deal with. New studies show that cannabis use leads to a reduction in motivation. The studies showed that those who had recently used marijuana were less likely to work for money. Cannabis use disorder is also a very real thing, despite the common misconception that marijuana isn’t addictive. In fact, almost 10% of those who smoke marijuana develop a dependence. From this mental illnesses like anxiety and depression can arise, and the dependence can develop characteristics of addiction, such as prioritizing marijuana over obligations, social life, and work.

Despite the risks, marijuana appears to be a far safer method with which to manage pain. Opioid addiction can easily be lethal, while deaths from marijuana use are virtually unheard of. However, marijuana is not likely to dethrone opioids as the most used painkiller in America. Studies show that it can’t reduce pain at the same levels opioids can. What it can do is provide an alternative to opioids for moderate pain, and it can also help those using opioids to taper off their medications more easily. Marijuana shouldn’t be adopted immediately as a replacement for opioids, but research shows that it deserves a second look for its ability to deal with pain and help those who are at risk for opioid addiction.