Last updated: April 12, 2021
The theory that marijuana can be used to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms is all over the internet. Once the news got out, some were certain that replacing opioids with marijuana could eventually bring an end to the opioid epidemic.
There’s a hole in that theory from the start though. Many studies on the subject found in the National Library of Medicine (NLM) all seem to specify that daily marijuana use “is associated with lower rates of initiation of injection drug use.”
If that’s the case, smoking a joint may help decrease the urge to shoot up if someone’s injecting heroin—or their pain medication. Is the same benefit afforded to those who ingest the drug in pill form or snort it to obtain the ultimate high?
A nation in crisis
In 1999, overdose deaths that listed an opioid as the cause killed less than 10,000 Americans. The number continued to rise and by 2010, the number of deaths rose to 21,088. It took less than a decade for that number to more than double.
If you don’t already know it, opioids caused the deaths of 46,802 Americans in 2018. We, as a nation, celebrated that figure because it was a few thousand less than the number of deaths recorded in 2017. After nearly two decades, could an end to this crisis be in sight?
It takes a while to gather all the data so we don’t have a 2019 figure available yet. Still, 2019 results aside, 2020 is on track to blow the number out of the water again as states across the United States are reporting that overdose deaths are on the rise or, even worse, at record-breaking levels.
Marijuana to the rescue
The medical benefits of marijuana have been touted for years now. Maybe we can add “reduces or relieves opioid withdrawal symptoms” to the list.
Do all studies reflect that daily marijuana use only helps addicts refrain from shooting up? Is there any benefit for those who ingest opioids in other manners?
According to another study published in the NLM (revised in July 2020), there are benefits for anyone who wants to get off opioids no matter how the drugs are ingested.
- Reduced emergency room visits
- Reduced hospital admissions for chronic non-cancer pain by medical cannabis users
- Fewer admissions for opioid-related drug treatment
- A lower number of opioid-related traffic fatalities
- Fewer opioid-related overdose deaths
Still, an update on a review of the current evidence and cannabis science published on the NLM site states:
“The reduction of opioid dosing, when used in combination with cannabis/cannabinoids, reduces side effects and allows for easier detoxification and weaning due to less of a tolerance and withdrawal from opiates, and rekindling of opiate analgesia after prior dosages have worn off.”
On the other hand
We found another article on the NLM site written by Dr. Ken Finn of Springs Rehabilitation, PC. It clearly states that marijuana won’t fix the opioid epidemic.
The article lists the following points:
- Adolescent rats exposed to THC developed enhanced heroin self-administration as adults.
- Over 90% of heroin users had a prior history of marijuana use compared to those who had a prior history of painkiller use.
- A large and growing body of evidence shows cannabis use increases non-medical prescription opioid use.
- Patients with chronic pain who are a part of an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation program using cannabis could be at higher risk for substance-related negative outcomes.
- Evidence shows that marijuana is more of a “companion drug” rather than a “substitution drug.”
The article noted that while there are documented cases of people who have used marijuana to wean themselves off of opioids, there isn’t enough evidence to support the claim that using marijuana would work for everyone.
Who should you believe?
Rather than being confused over the fact that the NLM would publish contradictory information, let’s look at it from a “need to be informed” point of view.
When we are able to look at both sides of the issue, it allows us to make educated decisions. Time will ultimately tell which view is the correct one.
Until then, physicians and anyone who wants to stop using opioids but fears suffering from withdrawal will have to decide whether or not marijuana is a valid treatment option.
Furthermore, another complication regarding this issue is that patients are self-medicating or treating their own family members with marijuana or CBD without consulting a physician. This is especially true within states that allow recreational marijuana use.
There are other options to consider when trying to avoid the use of opioids for pain management.
- Physical therapy
- Chiropractic treatment
- Cognitive-behavioral therapies
During the onset of the opioid epidemic, physicians were truly unaware that these drugs were highly addictive. Tragically, many Americans became addicted to opioids when using them for chronic pain management. The drugs are so addictive that even one round of medication can leave the patient craving more.
People should consider that grave fact when seeking pain relief. They should speak to their physicians about using an alternative rather than an opioid medication.
Many people believe that marijuana isn’t a “gateway drug.” However, it may not deserve the “miracle drug” title either. Further research is the best way to determine if either of these claims are true.
In the meantime, one should weigh their options when deciding whether or not to try medical marijuana for any reason. Discuss the pros and cons with your physician. Between the two of you, you’ll find the treatment that works best for your individual circumstance.