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Is Marijuana the Exit Drug Out of the Opioid Crisis?

Is Marijuana the Exit Drug Out of the Opioid Crisis?

As doctors, one of our primary responsibilities is to alleviate pain. Dr. Mike is an anesthesiologist and internist who, at the Cleveland Clinic, ran one of the largest pain therapy centers in the world; and as a heart surgeon, Dr. Oz is devoted to easing cardiac-related pain and helping patients manage pain post-surgery. For years, the medical profession relied on opiates to do the job, but now—because of the spike in addiction and overdoses from opioids—we have to find alternatives.

Each day in America, opioid overdoses send over 1,000 people to the emergency room, and prescription opioid pain relievers accounted for 20,101 deaths from overdose in 2015. In 2017, it appears opioid overdoses account for more deaths (over 100 a day) than auto accidents.

How did we get here? The medical profession recognized it needed to do more to help people deal with pain—but went too far. That coincided with the debut in 1996 of the opioid pain-reliever, OxyContin (oxycodone). Marketed by Purdue Pharmaceutical, their sales reps touted the drug as having an addiction rate of “less than one percent.”

The claim landed Purdue in hot water. In 2007, the company and three executives plead guilty in federal court to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction and its potential to be abused. The executives were sentenced to probation and 400 hours of community service in a drug treatment facility, and the company was fined $634 million. But the damage was done, and by 2004, OxyContin had become the leading drug of abuse in the United States.

Today, over-prescription of such opioid pain relievers remains a problem, and half of people taking them get those meds from a friend or family member who has “extras” lying around.

So, what can we, as doctors and concerned citizens, do to solve the epidemic of abuse and overdose? Promote research to identify effective alternatives for pain relief.

We believe medical cannabis could be that alternative in certain situations, and we’re calling on the federal government to fund the research. As Dr. Oz has stated before, the NIH “allots… $111 million dollars to cannabis research. This number represents a mere 0.3 percent of NIH's total spending on research and is only 0.1 percent of the opioid epidemic’s cost.”

All we want are facts: Outdated beliefs and policies have prevented our country from funding medical cannabis research. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which is part of the Department of Justice (DOJ), classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug—behind heroin and LSD. Schedule I drugs are defined as drugs “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

However, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have reviewed scientific research from around the world and found evidence that some patients treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.

Here at home, researchers from DePaul and Rush Universities have shown that those who take part in [Illinois’] medical marijuana programs are less likely to rely on prescription painkillers. Other studies have shown that pro-medical marijuana states have reported fewer opiate deaths, and there are no deaths on record related to an overdose of medical marijuana.

Take action: Dr. Oz has stated on his television show that while marijuana used to be seen as a gateway drug to narcotics, “medical marijuana may be the exit drug to get us out of this narcotic epidemic.” So, why not study it?

Clearly, it’s time to research the pain-relieving benefits and risks of medical marijuana. Join us in calling on NIH to quadruple its spending on this important research (it would be only 0.4 percent of opiate epidemic costs), and sign the petition that Dr. Oz has initiated at www.change.org. Search for “Fund More Research for Medical Marijuana.”

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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