The Opioid Epidemic Is Crushing Families But Cannabis Is Putting Them Back Together
The opioid epidemic is crushing families and communities across the U.S. and Canada. Could medical cannabis be the saving grace?
Cannabis could be one of our most powerful weapons against drug addiction, particularly today’s opioid epidemic, which killed nearly 50,000 Americans in 2017 alone.
In states with legal cannabis, opioid use drops about 25 percent, and less opioid use means less addiction and fewer overdoses across the board.
Why do weed-legal states see less opioid use? Are people replacing opioids with cannabis? It’s true that cannabis is an analgesic – a painkiller – and, in fact, the great majority of medical cannabis patients take it for chronic pain. Interestingly, the painkilling promise of cannabis is what prompted Illinois governor Bruce Rauner to sign a law that permits doctors, in his state, to suggest cannabis as a replacement for opioids.
The evidence we have isn’t entirely anecdotal, either. Despite severe restrictions on clinical cannabis research in the US and around the world, some research is being done, particularly in Canada.
M.J. Milloy is a research scientist at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Abuse. A few years ago, he began studying cannabis as a treatment for opioid and crack addiction, particularly in homeless individuals and HIV patients. So far, his research shows that cannabis helps opioid addicts, particularly heroin addicts, stay on methadone, another opioid that is used to wean addicts off more deadly drugs like heroin or oxycontin.
“That’s a very intriguing finding for us,” Milloy told RxLeaf by phone. “Obviously it’s good whenever we find anything that seems to be linked to keeping people on methadone, given methadone’s importance role in the lives of people suffering from substance use disorders.”
Methadone, however, remains a controversial treatment. Like most opioids, it also carries the potential for addiction and abuse. Milloy said that regardless of methadone’s dangers, it’s still far better for patients to use methadone than heroin.
“There is no cure for addiction,” he continued. “Evidence indicates that the first line of clinical therapy is substitution.”
By substituting one substance for another, patients maintain greater control over their addiction. Seeking out methadone, Milloy added, also encourages patients to seek medical care in the first place.
While Milloy studies the effects of cannabis on opioid and crack addicts, private companies are developing new products from cannabis that could supplement or replace opioids. Richard Kauffman is a bionutritional research director at NanoSphere Health, a biotech firm with offices in Colorado and British Columbia.
When asked if pain-relieving cannabis products, such as those being researched by NanoSphere, could curb the opioid epidemic, Kauffman replied, “That remains to be proven, but I do believe if given a fair shot, cannabis has some potential to help solve the opioid epidemic.”
According to Kauffman, cannabis, alone, is a powerful painkiller. Even just by reducing inflammation, it can reduce pain. Cannabis can also trigger the release of endorphins through CB2 receptor mediation which leads to a reduction in pain perception.
But Kauffman doesn’t foresee cannabis completely replacing opioids. In fact, he believes, in the future, cannabis and opioids could be prescribed side-by-side to effectively control pain while minimizing opioid abuse. This is because cannabis and opioids work on two separate receptor systems – the opioid receptor system and the endocannabinoid system – meaning it’s possible that these two drugs can be used together for a double-whammy pain-killing treatment.
“You can have a synergistic effect,” he explained, “an overlapping effect with the primary analgesic agents that you’re taking.”
Is there more, though? How else could cannabis help people use less or no opioids at all?
Milloy said that cannabis hits on several aspects of addiction. Many drug addicts abuse crack or opioids to relieve anxiety or pain, something that cannabis can do as well. Cannabis also appears to help addicts endure the horrors of withdrawal, which is essential to motivating the quit.
However, both Kauffman and Milloy noted that there’s still a lot of research needed before doctors can design treatment regimens that effectively employ cannabis.
“Until we do more experimental work,” Milloy said, “these are just educated guesses at this point.”
We need solid research that provides dosage information and treatment stages.