Deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily over the past two decades. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), at least 113 people die every day as a result of drug overdoses.
In response to this crisis, state and federal agencies have taken measures aimed at reducing opioid abuse and ultimately preventing drug overdoses and deaths. Recently, the FDA has approved several manufacturers’ applications for abuse-deterrent opioid product formulations. Additionally, the DEA has reclassified hydrocodone-containing products (Lortab, Vicodin, et.al.) from Class III to Class II controlled substances in hopes of alleviating or at least reducing the nation’s opioid and heroin epidemic.
Many states have also tightened up prescription rules and implemented prescription drug monitoring programs requiring prescribers and pharmacies to report controlled substance orders.
According to researcher Theodore Cicero of Washington University in St Louis, “Substance abuse is like a balloon: If you press in one spot, it bulges in another.” For example, while Oxycontin abuse has decreased by 17%, street heroin abuse has doubled. This raises questions about whether we are really solving the problem with tighter restrictions, or just shifting the problem to the “streets” for law enforcement to handle.
Andrew Kolodny, president of the national Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing stated, “Drug companies told us addiction is extremely rare. They told us opioids worked well for chronic pain. They told us that it wouldn’t be hard to get patients off of opioids. That was all totally not true, and with tighter drug controls, those addicted to pills are turning to heroin.”
Emerging Research Shows Promise For Marijuana Use Reducing Opioid Abuse.
Opioid mortality is nothing short of a major health crisis, and emerging data shows medical marijuana may be a credible alternative to prescription painkillers. In the U.S., in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, deaths from opioid overdoses have decreased by almost 25 percent. In states that have not legalized marijuana, efforts to combat opioid deaths have been relatively ineffectual. According to Marie J. Hayes of the University of Maine, “Everything we’re doing is having no effect, except for in the states that have implemented medical marijuana laws.”
Many health care providers remain skeptical about the risk of smoke being carcinogenic, however, to date this remains unproven. While marijuana is not without risks, it is arguably less addictive and almost impossible to overdose on compared to opioids.
Have Marijuana Laws Reached a Tipping Point?
To date, 24 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medical use, with at least another 17 who are considering or have introduced new bills or initiatives towards legalization.
How is the nation responding? For the first time in history, more than half of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, with at least 75 percent agreeing that legalization at a national level is inevitable. The recent vote by the House of Representatives allowing banks to provide services to marijuana businesses that are legal under state law demonstrates government confidence that medical marijuana is worth exploring further.
More research is needed to determine how medical marijuana can contribute to solving the opioid and heroin epidemic facing our nation. The American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) believes the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) should consider rescheduling cannabinoids from Schedule I to Schedule II in order to make it easier for research to be conducted. This may happen much faster than we think, as the DEA is conceding marijuana has medical value.
Advocates of changes in marijuana laws have tremendous momentum, as almost half the nation has taken steps to legalize medical marijuana. The U.S. continues to lose the war on drugs, and with promising results emerging, the time has come for a new approach.
Share your thoughts on medical marijuana in the comments section below.