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  • D. H. Reilly

Replacing Opioids with Medical Marijuana to Treat Chronic Pain

replacing opioids with medical marijuana for chronic pain

While the news that you will soon be able to get an Alabama Marijuana Card is good news for Alabamans with qualifying conditions, it’s also good news for the health of the state as a whole. Take, for example, the treatment of chronic pain.

The worst chronic pain cases are often treated with opioids, and it’s the overuse of opioids that has fueled our current opioid addiction epidemic. That’s especially concerning here in Alabama, where we have the nation’s highest rate of per capita opioid dispensing, according to the CDC.

But one bright spot in this ongoing epidemic is the continued establishment of statewide medical marijuana markets in the U.S. In the words of one study, “There is a growing body of evidence to support the use of medical cannabis as an adjunct to or substitute for prescription opiates in the treatment of chronic pain.”

Medical marijuana has been shown to be a highly effective pain killer. Studies have also shown that marijuana has anti-inflammatory properties, so it can help reduce the inflammation underlying pain in addition to numbing the sensation of that pain.

In short, medical marijuana can be used in place of other chronic pain treatments that have greater potential for negative side effects. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that access to medical marijuana to treat pain may be a lifesaver in many cases.

Opioids: A Cure That Can be Worse Than the Disease

There are good reasons why the Mayo Clinic, the top-ranked hospital in the U.S., calls opioids “a last resort for chronic pain management.”

Opioid medications are synthetic versions of opium-derived drugs, such as codeine, fentanyl, and oxycodone. They are often prescribed for acute pain resulting from trauma, such as surgery or broken bones.

Unfortunately, opioids are highly addictive, and long-term use of opioids increases the likelihood of becoming dependent on them. In fact, Mayo Clinic research has shown that after only five days of opioids use, a patient’s likelihood of still being on the medication a year later begins to climb.

And given that chronic pain is usually defined as pain lasting for three to six months, you’re likely to be on an opioid for a lot longer than five days if you’re using it to treat chronic pain.

Opioid Overdoses: Number One and Still Climbing

No matter how you look at the numbers, the opioid addiction epidemic continues to be a major problem facing the U.S.

The Mayo Clinic reports that opioids cause the most prescription-drug related deaths in the United States, and the hospital notes that this rate is still climbing. The CDC says that over 70% of all drug overdose deaths in the U.S., prescription or otherwise, involve opioids.

Alabama has hardly been exempt from what the CDC officially categorizes as an epidemic. In 2020, the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Alabama increased. This latest local blow in the opioid crisis follows years of educational outreach by multiple government agencies and medical interventions like the increased availability of Naloxone.

Can Medical Marijuana Really Help Limit Opioid Use?

So we’ve established that opioids are highly addictive, and that it’s this dependency that has fueled the ongoing opioid epidemic. And we’ve established that medical marijuana is an effective pain killer. But can medical marijuana actually limit the use of opioids, thereby limiting the number of patients that become dependent on them?

In a word: Yes.

Reducing Opioid Use with Medical Marijuana by the numbers

According to Harvard Medical School’s Health Blog, in the average state that implemented a medical marijuana program, opioid prescriptions declined by 2.21 million daily doses per year. Once those states’ marijuana dispensaries opened, opioid prescriptions dropped by 3.74 million doses per year.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the creation of a medical marijuana market in a state led to a nearly 6% drop in opioid prescription rates.

And another study published in JAMA found that the average state with a medical marijuana program saw almost four million fewer daily doses of opioids issued by their pharmacies than it had seen before its market opened.

In the words of the Harvard Health Blog, a decrease of millions of opioid prescriptions means “there were millions fewer bottles of prescription opiates consumed, sold, diverted, or abused.” In short, it meant good news for the entire state, not just the patients with marijuana cards.

As we said, Alabama leads the nation in opioid use. What we didn’t say was that we’ve held that top spot since 2012. And while opioid use continues to drop here, close to a decade of being a national leader in that sense seems like plenty long enough to us. Isn’t it time we use every weapon we have in this fight? And aren’t we lucky that we’ll soon be able to count medical marijuana among those weapons?

Reducing Opioid Use with Medical Marijuana: Beyond the Numbers

There are also less quantitatively measurable ways in which research says that medical marijuana can help alleviate the opioid epidemic. For example, one study reports that using medical cannabis with opioids has been shown to lead to greater pain relief and a subsequent reduction in opioid use.

That same study found good news for patients who have developed a tolerance for opioids, which can result in a need to use higher and higher doses to get the same results. Medical marijuana has been shown to rekindle the effectiveness of opioids, allowing patients to return to lower doses of opioids with continued efficacy.

All told the author concluded, “community-based medical cannabis dispensaries have proven successful at supplying patients with a safe source of cannabis within an environment conducive to healing, and may be reducing the problematic use of pharmaceutical opiates and other potentially harmful substances in their communities.”

Like we said, medical marijuana is good news for the community, not just card-carrying patients.

Ready for Your Own Good News with Medical Marijuana?

If you suffer from chronic pain, or any of the other qualifying conditions to receive an Alabama Marijuana Card, why not find out if medical marijuana is right for you?

Reserve an evaluation today, and we’ll make an appointment for you with one of our compassionate doctors just as soon as Alabama’s medical marijuana market is up and running. Not only that, but you’ll also save $25 off the cost of your evaluation!

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