Can Medical Marijuana Help Curb the Opioid Epidemic?

By Andy Heikkila | Published 11/26/2017 0

Marijuana coming from pill bottle on top of prescription 1690 x 1124

The opioid epidemic has been a growing problem in the U.S. for over a decade. However, recent allegations by whistleblower and former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, Joe Rannazzisi, paint an even more sinister picture, complete with backroom deals and conspiracies. He says that Congress and lobbyists alike have knowingly derailed DEA efforts to get the problem under control. According to a story about the Washington Post/60 Minutes investigation,

“[Rannazzisi’s] greatest ire is reserved for the distributors, some of them multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 companies. They are the middle-men that ship pain pills from manufacturers, like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, to drug stores all over the country,” explains 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker. “Rannazzisi accuses the distributors of fueling the opioid epidemic by turning a blind eye to pain pills being diverted to illicit use.”

Rannazzisi claims that the pharmaceutical industry allowed the distribution of millions of drugs to doctors and pharmacies that had no legitimate need for them. These distribution companies are required by law to look into suspicious shipments but turned a blind eye in the name of profit.

You know the implication of what you’re saying, that these big companies knew that they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people?” asks 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker.

That’s not an implication,” responds Rannazzisi, “that’s a fact. That’s exactly what they did.”

The cost of the opioid epidemic and search for solution

In response to Rannazzisi’s interview on 60 Minutes, President Trump vowed to declare a national emergency to combat the opioid epidemic. He made the same declaration in August, but unfortunately, he never followed through with it. But a report from the New York Times shows that he is set to declare a public health emergency of the situation. Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports:

“The move falls short of Mr. Trump’s sweeping promise to declare a national emergency on opioids, which would have triggered the rapid allocation of federal funding to address the issue, and does not on its own release any money to deal with the drug abuse that claimed more than 59,000 lives in 2016… But it would allow some grant money to be used for a broad array of efforts to combat opioid abuse, and would ease certain laws and regulations to address it.”

As the battle against opioids rages on, the search for a solution continues as well. Patient education has long been deployed as one solution, as well as alternative treatment options. Regis College’s Online MSN Program lists at least 10 types of alternative pain treatment and rates of prescription:

  • Natural Products (17.7%)
  • Deep Breathing (10.9%)
  • Yoga/Tai Chi/Qi Gong (10.1%)
  • Chiropractic Techniques (8.4%)
  • Meditation (8%)
  • Massage (6.9%)
  • Special Diets (3%)
  • Homeopathy (2.2%)
  • Progressive Relaxation (2.1%)
  • Guided Imagery (1.7%)

While these are great alternatives for pain management, the proof is in the pudding. Rates of opioid addiction and abuse have been steadily rising for the past decade. Nevertheless, there are those who think that the most commonly prescribed alternative pain management technique, “natural products”, could change the game, were it not for its hazy federal legal status.

Is medical marijuana a solution?

Between 1999 and 2010, only about 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place. Interestingly, researchers began to see a correlation between medical marijuana states and rates of fatal opioid overdoses. In 2010 alone, medical marijuana states showed fewer opiate-related deaths than states without said laws.

We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber says in an article via

Even treatment centers are beginning to look into the merit of cannabis-based treatment. The Recovery Village, based in Umatilla, FL, has a post on their website titled “Can Marijuana Be Used as a Treatment in Drug Addiction Recovery?” in which they acknowledge the potentially addictive nature of cannabis but also take a look at its benefits. From their blog,

“What some studies are finding is that the use of prescribed marijuana for some medical conditions, especially for pain issues, can help prevent an opioid addiction from developing in the first place. Many addicts begin their addiction with a prescription for painkillers, and medical marijuana might be a suitable and safer substitute… It bears noting, however, that there are no scientific or long-term studies to back up these methods.”

The need for more studies

The biggest problem that the legitimacy of medical marijuana suffers is indeed the same problem that recreational marijuana faces: A lack of well-designed scientific studies, either for or against. Public perception against marijuana can be strong at times, flying in the face of the actual numbers that support an opposing viewpoint. For example, the University of Reno Nevada (UNR), writing on cannabis’ relation to drugged driving, points out that approximately 44% of self-reporting respondents to a survey claimed they’d driven under the influence of marijuana in states that have legalized it, many of them unaware that they’d been breaking specific ordinances. This sounds bad because our gut reaction tells us: “Driving under the influence is bad.” However, the same article from UNR states that “the perception of danger is at odds with the number of accidents that can be attributed to the drug.”

UNR cites the American Public Health Association website that proclaims that they were unable to find causality between legal marijuana and fatal traffic accidents. The Washington Drug Policy Alliance issued a similar report with similar findings, echoing that traffic accident fatalities have not increased, but have, in fact, remained flat in states with recreational marijuana. This indicates that even when we think we know quite a bit on a topic, there’s usually still more to learn. Hopefully, this type of work will foreshadow a time when we are able to overcome the stigmas and stereotypes attached to marijuana use.

As time goes on, we’ll no doubt see more studies that lend credence to the use of medical marijuana as a tool for harm reduction in the opioid crisis. The Recovery Village post even mentions that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is currently funding several projects to investigate the use of synthetic THC for the treatment of addiction. For now, we’ll have to wait, but the future looks bright.

Andy Heikkila

Andy is health, tech, and futurism enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest. When he's not writing, you can find him on a run, drinking craft beer, or reading Kurt Vonnegut. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.

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