Could Marijuana Replace Opioid Painkillers?

Opioids and medical marijuana are two of the most highly debated types of drugs today. Opioids are only available by prescription but have still become the center of the type of crisis that hasn’t been seen in decades. Medical marijuana on the other hand, has been approved in 25 states so far, with many states such as Colorado and California also approving marijuana for recreational use. But while the debate surrounding opioids and medical marijuana rages on, some wonder whether or not marijuana may be a good replacement for opioid painkillers.

What is an opioid?Pill Medicine

Opioids are prescription painkillers that are derived from the poppy plant. This is the same plant that is used to make illicit drugs, including heroine and opium. Some of the most common painkillers that include opioids in their formula are Vicodin, Percocet (otherwise known as oxycodone), OxyContin and Zohydro.

These types of opioids are regularly prescribed for post-surgery patients in order to treat pain, or for chronic pain that a person is left with after an accident. They can also be prescribed for those who are dealing with chronic back, such as back pain due to a herniated disk.

But regardless of how often opioids are prescribed for any reason, there’s mounting evidence that they can cause more harm than good, and that they’re not even really effective painkillers.

Why is marijuana being considered as a replacement for opioid pain killers?

marijuanavsopioids-2-1200x627While in the past, opioids were strictly prescribed to be used as a painkiller, they’ve been used for much more than that over the past few years. The people who have used them as painkillers in the past are now addicted to them, and require more and more of them to even touch their pain. And in most cases, that doesn’t happen.

What’s more, many people are ingesting opioids without even being aware of it, and are dying as a result. In 2104, over 14,000 Americans died after taking the drug unintentionally, typically by using other drugs that they didn’t know were laced with opioids. Others, those who do take opioids intentionally, are not doing so due to the pain-killing effect these drugs have, but simply because they like the feeling of numbness the drug brings them.

In total, while the U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply. Dr. Jeanmaire Perrone, an advisor on the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, “The overdose rate [of opioids] might have been 1 or 2 a month in our emergency department, is now more like 3, 4, or 5, if not more than that in our emergency department.”

The crisis has become so bad in fact, that both hospitals and even schools have had to resort to storing Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, an antidote that can be helpful in reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. And overdoses do happen. They are the reason that the United States sees almost 100 deaths a day from opioids, a number that could spike to 500,000 deaths in total by 2027 if another option is not quickly made available, according to the leading public health experts at universities across America that were interviewed by STATnews.

And as answers are sought, medical marijuana seems to be the common answer. Marijuana, it’s long been known, has certain cannabinoids that help to relieve pain, the exact ailment that opioids are meant to treat, but that are far more effective and don’t come with the nasty side effects, such as addiction and death. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) report that, “The average number of patients who reported a reduction in pain of at least 30% was greater with cannabinoids than with placebo.” Other studies have also shown that due to the cannabinoids it contains, marijuana can even help with the gastrointestinal side effects other painkillers such as opioids can bring.

Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, has expressed the important role marijuana can play in the opioid war. He’s said, “It doesn’t have the high potential for abuse, and there are legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only that works. It is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana.” But in order to understand why marijuana is such a viable alternative to opioids, one must first understand how each works.

Marijuana vs. Opioid Painkillers

It’s true. Both marijuana and opioids are used as painkillers to help those that are dealing with chronic pain from a certain condition, an accident, or post-surgery. But they work in very different ways.

Opioids simply block the pain signals to the brain. So if you have an injury and take an opioid to deal with the pain, you might never feel that pain, simply because the opioids haven’t allowed that signal to be sent to your brain to tell you that you’re hurt. These are the same signals sent to the brain every time a person suffers an injury, but when opioids are in the system, those signals are blocked and so, the pain is never felt.

With marijuana, the process is much less known, but that doesn’t mean that marijuana is an ineffective painkiller. In fact, just the opposite has been proven to be true time and time again. It is known that marijuana works with the endocannabinoid system and the opioid system, with both working together to act as the ultimate painkiller. However, marijuana does not interact with the endocannabinoid system in the same way that opioids do.

And it’s this difference that allows marijuana cannabis-and-painkiller-overdose1to act as a much more effective painkiller than opioids. Marijuana can simply do so much more than opioids can. Those effects include:

  • Reducing the inflammation that may be causing pain in the first place
  • Triggering the release of endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormones found within the human body
  • Reducing fluids which can build up at the site of the injury, causing the site to become further inflamed and cause more pain
  • Block pain signals to the brain, just as opioids do
  • Open up blood vessels that are constricted and tense, thereby acting as a muscle relaxer

So, while it is true that marijuana and opioids are similar in some ways, it’s been proven time and time again that marijuana contains cannabinoids such as CBN, CBD, and THC that work to do so much more and therefore, act as much more effective painkillers.

Perhaps more importantly however, while the death toll due to opioids continues to climb a little more each day, there has never been a reported overdose of marijuana that has led to death. And that is reason alone for doctors, pharmacies and patients to start replacing their opioid use with the far more beneficial marijuana when trying to find an effective painkiller.

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