The marijuana leaf could be the key to ending the opioid crisis as we know it.

Roughly 60 percent of the American population lives in the 28 states and Washington D.C., where medical marijuana is legal. Where marijuana is legalized, there has been a drop in hospitalization rates for opioid painkiller dependence and abuse in these states.

A study published by Yuyan Shi from the University of California, San Diego in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that as of 2017, in states with legalized medical marijuana, hospitalization rates for opioid painkiller dependence and abuse has dropped an average of 23 percent. Hospitalization rates for opioid overdoses also declined 13 percent, on average. Shi analyzed hospital records from 1997 to 2014 in 27 states that implemented medical marijuana policies. In an additional five different studies, declines in opioid use or opioid-related deaths have been shown to decrease in states with legalized medical marijuana..

But where does that take marijuana legalization in the future? South Dakota, Michigan, and South Carolina are just a few states discussing legalization of the drug. Currently, marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning it has no medical use, and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs are ecstasy, LSD, and heroin, which are all among the worst classification of drugs by the government. Some Schedule II drugs are opium, morphine, fentanyl, and codeine. All drugs part of the opioid problem.

How marijuana and opioids help pain

Marijuana and opioids don’t help pain in the same way. In fact, they help a person to react to pain in very different ways. Opioids deal directly with the brain, the brain stem, and the spinal cord, and attach to opioid receptors, decreasing the release of pain signals according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teachers. They are very effective for eliminating pain, even in the worst of medical circumstances.

Marijuana works in a different way. Marijuana doesn’t reduce pain, but makes it more bearable, according to Medical News Today. The active chemical in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can be used in many different ways to make pain more tolerable. For example, THC can be consumed through smoking or orally through foods or pills. There is also the chance that people don’t respond to cannabis, though some respond very well.

The problem with opioids is that they are extremely addictive. They create withdrawal effects when cut out of a person’s daily routine. They produce a sense of pleasure and well-being to the consumer, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The body can become addicted to these drugs. These opioids can include anything from heroin, all the way to Oxycodone. Addiction signs can include any of the following:

  • Legal troubles
  • Missing social or work obligations
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Marijuana doesn’t affect someone in the same way. Marijuana isn’t addictive in the same way oxycodone is, but a person can easily become dependent. This means a person can still face withdrawal symptoms and some physical discomfort. However, there are still arguments about the addictive nature of marijuana.

The problem at large

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to flip a switch and make this change across the US. There are so many forces that make marijuana a Schedule I drug and many opioids legal. There are massive pharmacy companies that own the rights to opioids that market and have massive influence in questionable places.

For example, the most notable is OxyContin and Purdue Pharma. In a series of articles by the LA Times, Purdue Pharma was exposed. An extensive piece of journalism, this in-depth reporting by the paper implied that Purdue Pharma intentionally made the drug to not last as long as the 12 hours listed.

Here is a quote from the article:

“Experts said that when there are gaps in the effect of a narcotic like OxyContin, patients can suffer body aches, nausea, anxiety and other symptoms of withdrawal. When the agony is relieved by the next dose, it creates a cycle of pain and euphoria that fosters addiction, they said.”

These companies hold a lot of power in the country. A pharmaceutical company even donated $500,000 against the marijuana legalization effort in Arizona according to The Guardian. The company was Insys Therapeutics, which produces Subsys, an opioid painkiller derived from fentanyl.

The fight to find a new way to manage pain the the US is a long and difficult one. Between 2002 and 2015, there was a 2.8-fold increase in opioid deaths according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Whether it’s through marijuana or another type of medical intervention, something needs to be done about the opioid crisis, because it’s only a matter of time.

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