Colin McCallin Dec. 22, 2016

The opioid epidemic has reached new heights in the US and the news is bleak.  More people died in 2015 from heroin overdose than by guns. Across the country, 16 states showed marked increases in heroin and other opioid related deaths in 2015 alone. But while the issue affects everyone, there are states where the numbers of overdoses are actually going down. Where? In states where accessible medical and recreational marijuana programs exist, opioid related death has actually decreased.

The Epidemic

In 2015 52,000 people died of drug overdose and 66% of those were opioid related, which includes heroin, Oxycontin and Vicodin as well as synthetic opioids like Fentanyl (which is what Prince overdosed on) and Tramadol. New York saw their overdose rate jump by 136%, North Carolina by 46%, South Carolina by 57% and Connecticut and Illinois saw spikes of over 120% all over the one year period of 2014 to 2015. In that same period of time, heroin overdose claimed 12,989 lives.

Heroin and opiate abuse stems from abuse of prescription painkillers. Once hooked, if the prescription supply ends, the addicted patient then turns to the street to obtain pills. However it may be difficult or expensive to find the same drugs, so the person may turn to cheaper and easier to obtain heroin.

Since 1999 opioid related deaths have quadrupled and led to $72 billion in medical costs.

Marijuana Legalization

But the numbers in states with medical and/or recreational marijuana are revealing another side to this story. In states where marijuana is medically legal, opioid related deaths have dropped by 25%, annually. In addition, the effect continued to grow over time, meaning that after 5 or 6 years, even less people were misusing opioids. This was also reflected in the number of prescriptions issued or requested for opioids, which also fell significantly in medically legal states.

Changing Views

For decades, doctors have understood that opioids were an imperfect solution and that they only relieved pain completely in a small set of patients. But they are trusted and used because they are the best physicians feel they have. Due to the lack of adequate research, there is not a comprehensive conclusion about how cannabinoids work on pain over time. However, many doctors now find that they are willing to try it out in patients because there are so few side effects. Patients themselves are making the switch independently, which is where the numbers are really shifting.

Dr. Dustin Sulak in Maine is also encouraging a new look into how marijuana can solve the opioid health crisis. He examines key ways that cannabis can reduce opioid dependency, make prescriptions opiates more effective and use marijuana to safely reduce and eliminate opiate dependency, most of which stems from prescriptions.

And in another realm from medicine, football, many players are now openly addressing how cannabinoids are helping them deal with issues that developed from playing such a physically taxing sport.  For example, Jake Plummer, former Bronco, addresses how cannabinoids have improved his health and he supports groups like Realm of Caring in their efforts to research and educate the public on the benefits of cannabis. Realm of Caring, along with Plummer and former Ravens player and cannabis advocate Eugene Monroe, seek to engage more football players in their research on how cannabis may improve the lives of those who struggle with CTE or other traumatic brain injury.

Marijuana and Addiction

Ironically, a drug that has been accused of being addictive is now viewed as one that may relieve addiction. Doctors in Maine and Massachusetts believe marijuana may help people overcome their addictions to opiates and prescription drugs. Dr. Gary Witman reports weening around 80 patients off of harder drugs by using marijuana over a one month tapering off period.  Considering how many people struggle with lifelong addiction, one month sounds miraculous, even when you include the continuing follow up and monitoring.

The primary medical concern is the lack of research. However, even with the lack of intensive research, the high majority of doctors already recognize that marijuana is very safe with few negative side effects and no chance of death. An increasing number are willing to encourage its use in lieu of more dangerous and sometimes less effective drugs.

Legalization has opened the door to experimentation and research and the findings look positive. Not only do cannabinoids treat pain, they also show anti-inflammatory properties and promising results in treating head injuries and neurological conditions. They may help those struggling with addiction, not just with opiates but with alcohol, too. Most importantly, cannabis is widely regarded as safe. As a result of these amazing qualities, there is hope for those struggling with opiate addiction and options for doctors and state governments looking for solutions to their health crises. It’s time to give marijuana a real look as a solution to the opioid epidemic.