Today in America we face a national health crisis. An epidemic that killed nearly 35,000 people in 2015 alone, opioid overdose is the number one cause of accidental death in the United States. Nearly 2 million Americans are addicted to some form of opioid, which are synthetic narcotics such as heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl, which resemble natural-occurring opiates, such as opium, and react with the brain’s opioid receptors. The majority are addicted to prescription painkillers, legally given to them by physicians. With recent crackdowns on physicians over-prescribing painkillers, many patients have turned to the streets to find a fix, putting themselves in extreme physical and criminal danger. When the number of accidental overdoses doubles in 10 year’s time, it’s time to find some alternatives for people caught in a system that punishes people as addicts instead of helping to create an avenue for their healing. Medical marijuana could be an important tool in helping fight this epidemic that has touched so many lives, including that of a dear friend of mine.
My friend’s story started when her son, Nick, a varsity athlete,was injured early in his senior year in wrestling. He had a promising future, a full-ride scholarship on the line, a chance at state. He was given a soft cast for the injury to his left wrist, and an ongoing prescription for Oxycontin. His parents were assured that there would be no danger of addiction. Nick would be able to wrestle with his arm in the cast while on Oxycontin, a time-release version of oxycodone, and when his arm healed and the pain was gone, he would simply stop taking the medicine. And while Nick did go on to wrestle, eventually winning state, and securing his college scholarship, his relationship with opioids was far from over.
After graduating high school, and making his way to college on his wrestling scholarship, Nick re-injured himself. When his roommate offered some old pills he had, he gladly accepted. After his re-injury and the reintroduction of opioids into his system, Nick began to buy off the street, eventually getting caught, causing legal problems to layer on top of the medical problems he faced with addiction. Nick’s relationship with pills began in an trusted environment with his doctor and his parents.
In 2014, physicians in the United States wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers for their patients for a plethora of reasons: injuries, surgeries, dental work, chronic pain caused by illnesses, diseases, and physical disabilities. Opioids are the standard go-to medicine in the current pharmaceutical climate, directly resulting in the skyrocketing number of patients addicted to and overdosing from opioids. However, a recent study in the JAMA of Internal Medicine gives hope that this trend may be easing. States that legalized medical marijuana are now seeing a dramatic decrease in opioid-related deaths of 25 percent.
While some medical applications for opiate derivatives are needed, a massive decrease in prescriptions has been called for, resulting in a desperate need for alternatives. Medical marijuana, rich in CBD, available in many delivery systems besides traditional smoking, is a viable, relatively non-addictive, non-lethal alternative for pain relief. And for many currently battling opioid addiction, medical marijuana may help not only with the physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal, but also mental and emotional symptoms, including anxiety and depression. As we begin to sort out what these statistics could mean for fighting this epidemic, we run headlong into federal laws that keep marijuana from being reclassified from a Schedule I narcotic (meaning no medical applications), thus preventing further scientific research, leaving many people trapped in a cycle of addiction.
After years of struggle and getting caught up in the legal system, Nick went from being a young patient, in the prime of his life, to an addict, to a criminal. This is just one example of many stories of patients who depended on doctors to treat them, but who instead find themselves addicted and on the opposite side of the law. Although Nick is now clean, the ramifications of his opioid use will stay with him for life.
Research suggests that one solution to this epidemic might be sitting right in front of us. Anecdotal evidence suggests that medical marijuana could be a life-saving alternative to opioids. Last year prescriptions for opioids fell in Colorado, suggesting that patients with access to medical marijuana may be choosing to use it over prescription opioids. According to one study, many ailments that had been previously treated with opioids could also be alleviated by medical marijuana, such as pain management, resulting in fewer prescriptions.
More research remains to be done,but in the meantime, on the front line of the opioid epidemic, medical marijuana is gaining traction as an invaluable tool to stave off this national health crisis.
Meggie J is a published poet and freelance writer living in the Four Corners. She is an avid reader, rafter, and connoisseur of cannabis. She can be reached at [email protected].