Could Medical Cannabis Break the Painkiller Epidemic?

Photo Credit: Scientific American

Photo Credit: Scientific American

The Department of Health and Human Services says the United States is caught in an opioid epidemic, and prescription opioid overdoses have resulted in the deaths of over 165,000 Americans between 1999 and 2014. Fifteen years ago, researchers led by Marcus Bachhuber from the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City began looking into the anecdotes of patients who used medical marijuana to treat pain instead of opioids. The study, which was published in 2014, found states with legalized medical marijuana had 25% fewer opioid overdoses annually than states that prohibited medical marijuana. Bachhuber said, “I think medical cannabis could fall into the category of alternatives for treating chronic pain so that people don't use opioids or use a lower dose of opioids than they otherwise would."

This study is not alone. Another study from the University of Michigan analyzed 185 medical marijuana patients, and found they reported reducing their opioid use by more than half. Animal studies found cannabinoid work well supplementing opioids to manage pain. Another study, published in the Clinical Journal of Pain and co-authored by Simon Haroutounian of the Washington University Pain Center in St. Louis, looked at 176 chronic pain patients in Israel over the course of seven month, and found that during that time 44% of them had stopped taking prescription opioids after starting medical cannabis dosing regimens. While these observational studies provide useful data about patients who use cannabis instead of opioids, more in depth and large scale clinical trials are necessary in actually proving the cause and effect relationship between cannabis use and opioid substitution. Unfortunately, cannabis' schedule I status makes it difficult to conduct these trials.

This information has been provided by the Scientific American and approved by our Chief Medical Officer.