Opiate use in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. One hundred sixteen people die each day from opioid-related drug overdoses. Often, opiate abusers form an addiction as the result of a singular goal: ease feelings of physical pain. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly 80 percent of heroin users reported misusing prescription painkillers before turning to illicit drugs. Understanding the relationship between pain and opiate abuse has left many to ask if there are safer, alternative treatment options available to those coping with chronic pain.
The recent legalization of marijuana in some states and the increased use of medical marijuana have fueled this debate, leaving many asking if legalized marijuana could be a factor that can ease the opiate epidemic. While there is no definitive answer to this question, much has been speculated on both sides of the debate. What follows are summaries of the two opposing viewpoints.
Yes: Legalizing Marijuana Can Help Ease the Opiate Epidemic
The argument for the legalization of marijuana, or for the increased use of medical marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain, centers on providing a legal alternative to opioids, which have more severe addictive tendencies with more physically dangerous side effects compared to marijuana.
A recent report by CNN points to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, that compared opioid prescription patterns in states that have enacted medical cannabis laws with those that have not. The research indicates that those states that allow the use of cannabis for medical purposes had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed per year under Medicare Part D, compared with those states without medical cannabis laws. Opioid prescriptions under Medicaid also dropped by nearly six percent in states with medical cannabis laws compared with states without medical cannabis laws.
In another study, researchers analyzed the number of nonintentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths in states with and without medical marijuana laws. The study, which looked at data over a ten-year period, revealed, on average, a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths after studied states implemented medical marijuana laws.
No: Legalizing Marijuana Will Exacerbate Opiate Addiction Rates
On the other side of the debate are those who argue, not only that legalized marijuana will not curb opiate addiction, but rather that easier access to marijuana will exacerbate opiate addiction rates. The argument stems from the relationship between prescription painkillers and illicit opiates. Given the rate of Americans who turn to dangerous street drugs such as heroin when they are no longer able to access prescribed painkillers such as oxycodone, many argue a similar progression could occur in a scenario where marijuana is legalized.
Those against the legalization of marijuana fear that enabling legal marijuana will create a false impression of sanctified drug use, increasing recreational drug use. Similarly, if individuals living with chronic pain have been proven to turn to stronger, illegal painkillers when legal options are no longer available, the argument stands that this behavior would not change were medical marijuana to be added to the available drug treatment list and that those suffering from pain will continue to seek out illegal alternatives when legal options are no longer available.
Conclusion: The Need to Treat the Underlying Cause of Pain
The debate regarding the legalization of marijuana and the need for a solution to the opiate addiction epidemic is not one that can be solved in a day. What is known, however, is that individuals who misuse opioids are often searching to treat physical, and/or emotional pain that is the direct result of an underlying physical or emotional issue. By addressing the underlying cause of the pain and ensuring anyone prescribed a painkiller treatment has the support they need to transition off of medication, those at risk of opioid addiction can minimize their chances of long-term dependency.