Medical Marijuana: An Alternative Treatment
Even in the midst of a national pandemic such as COVID, opioid abuse continues to be a national health crisis. In 2018, the National Institutes of Health reported that there were approximately 67,367 deaths related to drug overdose in the United States. While this number demonstrates a slight decline of 4.1% from the previous year, it is still an alarmingly high number.
Interestingly in 2018, Maryland estimated 90% of drug-related overdose deaths were attributed to opioids. During this time the death rate from opioids, including fentanyl but excluding methadone, witnessed a steady rise with greater than 28,400 drug overdose related deaths. Conversely, there was a significant decrease in the number of deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin; 14,975 and 14,966 respectively.
On a positive note, in 2018, Maryland providers prescribed 45.1 opioid prescriptions per 100 patients, which was significantly below the national average of 51.4 per 100 patients.
Opioids originated in the form of opium extracted from the poppy plant. Opioids have been utilized for centuries to treat chronic pain related to medical conditions, surgery, and serious physical injury. No matter the cause of chronic pain, having to live with it on a daily basis can significantly impede one’s quality of life – physically or mentally.
In short, opioids mechanism of action is that it blocks the sensation of pain. While opioids of any kind are meant to be used on a short-time frame, they are known to become highly addictive, very quickly, so there is often a high rate of diversion. For these reasons, the use of opioids often results in dependence, abuse, and addiction.
There is a strong debate among some experts as to whether medical marijuana could potentially be used to safely and effectively replace opioids to combat the war on opioid addiction. Research continues to find a correlation between the legalization of marijuana and the decrease of opioid use and opioid prescriptions. One study revealed that in states that enacted medical cannabis laws there was a 24.8% decrease in opioid overdose deaths. According to another research study, opioid prescriptions, under the Medicaid Program between 2011-2016 was found to have decreased by 5.88% in states with medical marijuana laws compared with states without any medical marijuana laws.
Another study examined opioid prescriptions under the Medicare Part D Program between 2010-2015, in states with medical marijuana dispensaries witnessed 3.742 decreased in opioid prescriptions. Similarly, there was a decrease of 1.792 million opioid prescriptions in states that permitted home cultivation. There is also evidence of decreased hospital admissions for opioid-related treatment.
With an astounding 37 states already having enacted medicinal marijuana laws, there is increasing discussion about the efficacy of marijuana as an alternative treatment to opioids. There is definitely a need for more research as it relates to the marijuana science and the effects of current marijuana policies. There are a few hospital-sponsored and government-sponsored evidence-based research studies that are underway to research the efficacy of marijuana as an alternative to opioids for acute and chronic pain.