It’s no secret that the opioid crisis in the U.S. is getting out of hand – more than 130 people die every day due to opioid-related overdoses according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1). The situation has been declared an official public health emergency. So what can we do?
The answer may be more obvious than we thought. Researchers from Vancouver, Canada believe marijuana is the solution for the opioid crisis (2). A study published in November this year reached the conclusion that every day moderate use of marijuana reduces the need for commercial opioids by nearly 50% (3).
Cannabis as a pain management tool
Cannabis has been known as a herbal remedy for thousands of years but isn’t used often in clinical settings today for legal reasons (4). Despite its illegal status, cannabis is still used to a great effect throughout the world today. Migraine patients as well as cancer and AIDS patients all frequently cite marijuana as one of the best solutions for their chronic pains (5).
How does it work?
While pain is felt locally it’s actually always perceived in our brains, no matter where it originates from. That’s because the receptor cells in our bodies send signals through our nerves to our brains every time they sense any type of pain.
However, these same pain receptor cells are also very sensitive to cannabinoids. Because of this, the frequent use of cannabis tends to block our pain receptors and alleviates chronic pains. Still, because of the legal restrictions on marijuana, this theory hasn’t been sufficiently tested yet, but the research done on it seems more than conclusive.
This recent study from Vancouver is a long-term project that combines data from two previous studies from 2014 and 2017. One of them has been running since the mid-90s and the other – since the mid-2000s (6). The studies worked with a lot of homeless or near-homeless people which tend to be prone to drug use.
M-J Milloy, the author of the study, elaborated that chronic pain is one of the most common reasons for opioid overdoses and people from the marginalized communities are more likely to use illicit drugs than legal pain remedies.
According to this and other studies, cannabis has a so-called “opioid-sparing effect”. Another similar study from 2014 reached a similar conclusion, citing that U.S. states with legally allowed medical cannabis use have significantly lower opioid OD deaths (7).
Another study from 2016 worked with 274 participants and concluded that marijuana reduced pain, improved the overall functionality of the patients, and reduced the need for medical opioids (8).
What Comes Next?
Another thing most researchers agree on is that marijuana studies are tricky to do. There are lots of legal and ethical factors that go into pain relief studies in humans. Additionally, the populations that are tested for marijuana use are hard to control for outside factors.
One thing is clear – more testing is needed to determine how exactly cannabis helps with pain relief and how effective it can be as a substitute for opioids. Plus, it will likely take even more to convince the people in power to do something about it. Still, progress is being made and M-J Milloy says that they are moving to trails in a controlled setting next year.