How Medical Marijuana Laws Impact America's Opioid Epidemic

A shift in how people view weed could mean less heroin and opioid users will die from overdoses.

Medical marijuana is helping opioid addicts kick heroin and prescription painkiller addictions. This observation has led to an arguably sound, albeit alternative argument for cannabis legalization. To some extent, the notion of consuming legal weed over potentially fatal heroin is also a mainline narrative within the national discussion surrounding marijuana policy reform. And a growing body of statistics shows that in states with functional medical marijuana programs, the number of opioid-related deaths and overdoses is on the decline

As a greater number of lives are destroyed or cut short by opiate addiction, it is increasingly evident the United States is failing miserably to protect its drug users from becoming victims of an often-hidden epidemic. The American opioid epidemic can be hard to grasp, but it is absolutely a crisis.

The most recent data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention shows “91 Americans [dying] every day from an opioid overdose.” Between 2000 and 2015, the number of opioid-related overdoses in this country quadrupled. The greatest increase in new users was observed among white, male, blue-collar workers––a class of Americans who in the last decade have seen their employment opportunities drastically dwindle.

“Men tend to identify with their jobs to a degree that’s unhealthy, and often report feelings of aimlessness and inadequacy in retirement,” wrote John McDermott for MEL magazine. “And with blue-collar jobs disappearing, it seems that many men of that class are turning to drugs to fill the void.”

Image via VSCO

Though it’s not just the harshness of living in America’s down-and-out heartland that drives people to the drug. Prescribed but medically unnecessary use, overuse, or misuse of pharmaceutical opioids is a systemic contributor to the epidemic. 

This is a point made clear by the Los Angeles Times investigation, You Want a Description of Hell?’ Oxycontin's 12-Hour Problem.

The Times investigation took a probing look at the business practices of Purdue Pharma, which manufactures and markets Oxycontin, the opioid painkiller that has become “the most widely abused pharmaceutical drug in U.S. history.” The Times reporters found that Purdue systematically pressured doctors to recommend patients dose Oxy once every 12-hours despite knowing the effects of the drug would dissipate far sooner, leaving patients with a double-whammy of pain and withdrawal most easily but dangerously solved by increasing drug use. 

“OxyContin is a chemical cousin of heroin, and when it doesn’t last, patients can experience excruciating symptoms of withdrawal, including an intense craving for the drug.”

Addicts say getting off doctor-prescribed opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin, morphine, and even methadone can be just as hard as kicking heroin.

After completing a rehab program for opiate-abuse, one former user who later kicked heroin by substituting kratom for the drug, said to KINDLAND that “coming off of the Suboxone was about as rough as coming off of the opioids.”

To that end, a 2017 essay on the opioid epidemic published in JAMA Psychiatry notes:

“Physicians’ prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain rose 3-fold and became the major source of opioids over the past two decades. This shift in practice norms was fueled by an acceptance of low-quality evidence that opioids are a relatively benign remedy for managing chronic pain.”

But a changing landscape in regard to state marijuana laws has medical marijuana programs already active, or being enacted in more than half of the country. And, as far as we know, it's impossible to die from a marijuana overdose. 

This shift in how policymakers and the general public view weed could potentially mean less heroin and opioid users will die from overdoses, as a growing faction of the medical community and affected families see the (less-toxic) drug as a viable means of ditching dope altogether. Or at least a worthwhile avenue to explore, as current prevention and harm reduction methodology is failing. 

Video via VICE News

According to a just-published study in the journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, UC San Diego researchers found:

“Medical marijuana legalization was associated with 23 percent and 13 percent reductions in hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse and OPR overdose.”

The study’s authors looked at hospital discharge data to reach their conclusion. Positively, data such as that obtained in the UCSD study is influencing legislators to re-think prevention measures and their tactics to put a dent in the crisis among their constituents.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that battling the opioid epidemic will require a multi-pronged approach and a good deal of creativity,” a professor of emergency medicine not involved in the study said to Reuters. “Could increased liberalization of marijuana be part of the solution? It seems plausible.”

In March of 2017, New Mexico lawmakers proposed HB 257, a bill they hoped would curb the Land of Enchantment’s reported multigenerational heroin and painkiller problem. On the state’s aspirations, house minority leader Rep. Nate Gentry told Rolling Stone, "Medical cannabis has great potential as an opioid replacement drug and we want to move people away from being prescribed highly addictive opiates."

This month, however, New Mexico governor Susana Martinez vetoed the bill

To be certain, addiction is inexorably complicated. Habitually using any drug will result in profound effects on the user, sometimes in ways that only surface when things get really bad. And heroin use is, in every way, a living hell. More than that, these "words are weak compared to the drug." But if the opportunity exists for weed to ease the suffering even just a little bit, we should explore it with the same urgency and alacrity we devote to other medicinal treatments.