Marijuana activists are pushing for cannabis as an alternative to painkillers for managing chronic pain, hoping record national support for pot can aid the fight to combat opioid abuse.
Polling shows roughly 61 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, which a majority of voters now view as less harmful than alcohol. A new study from Yahoo News and Marist Poll shows public perception of marijuana is softening as legalization efforts continue to succeed in states across the country. It revealed roughly 67 percent of Americans think opioid painkillers pose greater health risks than medical marijuana.
Researchers trying to study the efficacy of marijuana as an alternative painkiller to opioids continue to face roadblocks to research and a federal government that is hostile to the idea of easing restrictions on pot. Recent studies suggest marijuana can be an effective pain treatment and does not come with the risks of debilitating addiction.
“I know a lot of people that at one point or another in their lives were involved with opioids in some way,” Serge Chistov, financial partner to the Honest Marijuana Company eco-friendly cannabis growery, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Many became recreational drug consumers of opioids after they were prescribed it for a lot of pain.”
Despite public perception, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug alongside deadly narcotics like heroin. The classification means the federal government does not recognize any medicinal benefit to marijuana, making it nearly impossible to secure federal funding for research studies to learn more about its effects.
Opioids are widely recognized as an effective painkiller, but are also linked to the massive increase in heroin abuse and opioid related deaths in the U.S., which claimed 33,000 lives in 2015. In light of the massive spike in overdoses, experts argue it’s reasonable to offer it in place of painkillers. Officials with the DEA say four out of five heroin addicts started with painkillers.
“Cannabis does not really relieve pain as opioids do by blocking the receptors,” Chistov said. “Cannabis deflects the source of the pain. The best way to describe how cannabis affects the pain mechanism is to remember what happens when you hit your knee on something you didn’t see. Your first response is to rub the area around the spot of the impact. You are telling your brain to stop concentrating on that spot and focus on another.”
A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, found hospital visits for complications from prescription painkillers are dropping in states with legal weed. The hospitalization rate for opioid abuse and dependence in states with medical marijuana are roughly 23 percent lower than states without legal access
Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses are on average 13 percent lower than states without medical marijuana programs.
“Cannabis takes the amplitude of the pain signal and cuts it down by deflecting the pain and spreading it around,” Chistov told TheDCNF. “Opioids are simply temporarily blocking the transfer of any signal in-between the receptors that are responsible for pain generation. The block temporarily wears off and then you need to take more to block it again.”
Medical researchers are not claiming pot will “solve” the opioid epidemic, but the study adds to a growing body of evidence that marijuana can be effective. Research released in February from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria suggests patients suffering from chronic pain and mental health conditions will choose marijuana over their addictive prescription drugs when doctors give them a choice.
Roughly 63 percent of patients in the study chose marijuana due to reduced side effects and because it is far less addictive than their prescription medication. Patients also said they were better able to manage their symptoms by using weed.
“It is beyond any shadow of a doubt that the incorporation of cannabinoids in pain treatment reduces the intensity of consuming opioids by a drastic amount,” said Serge.
Opioid deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 and eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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