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How You Can Use Cannabis to Reduce Opioid Dependence

With the opioid crisis showing no signs of stopping, why not use cannabis to reduce opioid dependence and combat the upsurge of addictions and drug overdoses?


It is no secret that the United States in embroiled in a serious crisis surrounding opioid medications. It is hard to watch television or traverse the internet without being confronted with ads for addiction help services, rehabilitation centers, and multi-part news segments, all lamenting the growing scourge of opioid prescriptions and drug abuse. With celebrities like Prince and Tom Petty passing from fentanyl overdoses, it is hard to not question the safety of such substances. As you likely know, opioid medications are derived from opium, from which heroin is also composed. What you may not know, fentanyl is the Hitler of opioids, being far stronger than straight heroin, and becoming more and more prevalent in overdoses nationwide. As such, these drugs are highly addictive, both physically and psychologically, and can consequently be more devastating and addictive than the likes of cannabis. Prescribed for all kinds of injuries and pains, they are surprisingly easy to acquire legally. In this way, restriction to access of these powerful painkillers has often done more harm than good, sending these addicts to the street for their fix. As such, it is not surprising that the country has an opioid crisis on its hands. However, in looking for a solution to this public health disaster, one may find that some solutions are counter intuitive. In light of its gradual reintegration into legality, some medical professionals believe that it may be possible for one to use cannabis to reduce opioid dependence. 

The Necessity

Opioids are a bigger problem than we realized, and nationwide opioid addiction problem is beginning to reach a fever pitch. Though long a matter of controversy, it is becoming harder and harder to ignore the impact and inherent contradictions of their usage as overdose deaths continue to mount. With more media attention ever, healthcare providers are frantic to find alternative treatment options for these drugs, and a means to help those who have fallen victim to them. Paraphrased from Dr. Dustin Sulak in an article published on Leafly.com, as many as 2.5 million people in this country suffer from addiction to opioid painkillers causing upwards of 100 fatal overdoses daily. When people are unable to score more of the painkillers they crave, they often switch to heroin, opening themselves up to even more danger at the hands of contaminated and addictive substances, overdose, and infectious disease after the application of used needles. To be entirely clear: The already existing and rampant heroin problem in this country is being fed by the misuse of painkillers.

The very prevalence of these medications, as legally prescribed by doctors, has been, perhaps, the leading cause of the crisis. Before explaining the benefits of cannabis for opioid addiction, it is important to establish what sort of conditions can generate such a desperate state of mind. Being highly addictive, these insidious pills can often hook those who were given them for medical purposes. Many people become dependent on these drugs due to a chronic pain that impedes their ability to function. In such a state of desperation, it is easy to see how one could give themselves over to harmful forces with the promise of relief. Others were perhaps prescribed them after some sort of medical or dental procedure to reduce the pain. In these cases, people can and have succumbed to the highly addictive nature of these drugs, possibly due to other underlying psychological issues. People abuse opioids to deal with pain, whether that pain be physical or emotional. In either case, many of these poor souls get hooked on this pharmaceutical heroin, often switching to actual heroin when they have worked and conned as many medical channels as possible and can no longer acquire the pills. 

Being that they are derivatives of heroin, quitting opioids can prove even more difficult to quit due to both psychological attachment, as well as the harsh withdrawal symptoms of conquering physical addiction. Opioids are purer and more potent than heroin often is, adding to the explosive nature of this crisis. As such, one could argue that a less harmful substance with similar, but milder, characteristics could act in the way that methadone has to help people quit heroin. Could marijuana be the hero needed to fight opioid addiction?

Facing Obstacles

While the answer may well be out there, it's status with the law has made it difficult to study. With the slow rise of medical cannabis, medical science is beginning to consider new horizons. New medical breakthroughs are occurring in states with medical marijuana. It may come as a surprise that some doctors are turning to another substance that has been banned and dogged by conservatives for years to handle these addictions, but cannabis seems to have some serious potential in this battle. It has been said countless times before, and is largely misunderstood in modern American history, falling victim to agricultural and media politics. While opioid painkillers have been legally prescribed for years, cannabis has dubiously occupied the same schedule one distinction as heroin. Just as new medical marijuana laws have allowed for the research and distribution of cannabis as a treatment for a number of medical conditions, it has allowed professionals the ability to conduct more studies that could find new, potentially beneficial uses as well.

Growing Statistics

One of the reasons to legalize weed is so that people can experiment with the many different properties that plant contains so that we may better help people who need it. In this mind, with a number of states legalizing medical and/or recreational cannabis, and the growing prevalence of medical marijuana legalization in several other states, medical professionals are beginning to discover things that many users of cannabis have suspected for a while. With less legal restriction on cannabis in a number of new places, the medical industry has been able to do research and conduct studies that will bring greater understanding of cannabis to dispel many myths that have grown up around. One of the best discoveries to come of this evolving attitude is the understanding and use of CBD (cannabidiol). In addition to THC, (the stuff that gets you high), cannabis has other active ingredients such as CBD, which contain some of the more medicinal properties of the plant. While obviously not as potent as opioids, cannabis (chiefly CBD) has been associated with mild pain relief for many years. In order to best utilize these characteristics, experts suspect it is best to use either a high CBD strain of flower, or to take concentrated CBD oil, as CBD contains all of the espoused health benefits but is not psychoactive. Additionally, many find cannabis relieves anxiety, especially for those with PTSD or other trauma. The aforementioned Leafly article cites a study of 542 opioid dependent patients who used cannabis to quit or manage their addictions. If their results can scale up, cannabis could potentially allow for a substantial reduction in opioid use and production. Of those 542 participants, 39 percent were able to quit opioids, while another 39 percent were able to lower their dosages. As many as 80 percent found that they were able to function better when adding cannabis to their routine. The study also found that almost half experienced at least a 40 percent reduction in pain and 87 percent claimed to have improved their quality of life. Though results certainly varied on an individual level, certain medical practitioners now believe that it is possible to use cannabis to reduce opioid dependence.    

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