Is Medical Marijuana An Answer to the Opiate Crisis?

marijuana heart

Drug overdose deaths from opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone, and morphine have increased dramatically over the past few years, and it’s now reached point where overdose has become the leading cause of death among Americans aged 50 and younger.

According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 42,000 opioids drug deaths in the U.S. in 2016; 11,600 more than the previous year, and approximately double the rates of a decade ago.

The opioid epidemic has led doctors, first responders, addictions counselors, and drug users themselves to search for ways to save lives, leading many to examine the relationship between legalized marijuana and opioid use.

California led the drive towards legalized marijuana in 1996, followed by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington in 1998. Recreational marijuana was first legalized in both Colorado and Washington in 2012, and it’s now currently legal in eight states plus the District of Columbia.

In Colorado, a state that saw a steady rise in opioid-related deaths during the 14-year period leading up to marijuana legalization, opioid-related death rates dropped by over six percent in the 2-year period after recreational marijuana use was legalized.

Even more compelling are the results of a longitudinal study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which examined “medical cannabis laws and state-level death certificate data in the United States from 1999 to 2010” which included all 50 states.

Researchers concluded that “states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate…. compared with states without medical cannabis laws.” Even more interesting is the fact that the positive correlation between reduced opioid death rates and medical marijuana legalization increased over time.

Although it’s clear that these studies don’t take into account the recent flood of high-potency opioids such as carfentanil (carfentanyl) into the domestic drug trade, even long-time opponents to marijuana use such as the National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins concedes that, “there has been a statistical relationship between states that legalized marijuana and lower opioid deaths”.

Big Pharma

While critics claim there’s a shortage of studies supporting the connection between legalization of marijuana and reduced rates of opioid use, it’s clear that some pharmaceutical companies see cannabis as a threat to their business.

INSYS Therapeutics Inc., the Chandler, Arizona pharmaceutical company who’s primary product is a powerful, fast-acting sublingual Fentanyl spray known as Subsys, donated $500,000 to oppose Prop. 205 – a law that would legalize marijuana use in the Copper State.

This is the same company who’s founder, John Kapoor, was arrested by federal agents in October, 2017 on charges of bribing physicians, falsifying medical records, and committing insurance fraud in order to boost sales of their opioid-based products.

Although some pharmaceutical companies see the growth of legalized marijuana as competition, others are seeking to cash in on the pain-killing potential of cannabis-based products.

Nemus Bioscience, Intec Pharma, and Rival Axim are all actively testing marijuana-based drugs with an eye towards disrupting the opioid market and reducing the skyrocketing rates of opioid overdose. In fact, Rival Axim has developed and patented a chewing gum that includes CBD and THC (two of the most active cannabinoid compounds in marijuana), and they hope to commence clinic trials on opioid-dependent study participants soon.

Advocates of legalized marijuana continue to support legal reform and research into the positive connection between cannabis and lowered opioid death rates, including seeking to change how the federal government classifies marijuana.

Marijuana is currently listed as a ‘Schedule 1’ drug in the United States, which means that it’s considered to be both devoid of any acceptable medical application in the U.S., and it’s highly susceptible to abuse. Other Schedule 1 substances include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and peyote.

As a Schedule 1 substance, any medical use of marijuana, including the development of alternatives to opioids, requires additional federal approvals above and beyond what’s normally required during the development of a standardized prescription drug.