Is Marijuana a Precursor to Opioid Abuse?

Drug addict buying narcotics and paying

Drug addict buying narcotics and payingWhat if you were a skeptic? Had a chronic health condition. And were left with a life-altering decision – how to best manage your pain. This is a situation that many of us have faced, live with today or will encounter at some point down the road. And if you don’t just take a doctor’s word for what’s best, you delve into your own research and investigations about options. Perhaps you’ll look online for information. Ask friends, relatives and coworkers who struggle with pain what they do to ease their symptoms. But at the end of the day, you are tasked with deciding the optimal course of action. It’s like holding a weight scale. On one end, you place a bottle of Rx opioids. On the other rests a quarter-ounce of medical-grade marijuana. Healthcare experts are at odds in which is better. Let’s weigh both sides. You decide if marijuana is a precursor to opioid abuse or as an alternative to pain pill use

Active Marijuana User Indications

Psychiatrists took note of the trending opinions within the medical community giving praise to cannabis as a treatment for pain, though the federal government continues to classify it as a Schedule 1 illegal drug. Researchers from Columbia University took this a step further and initiated a long-term study on the subject. An author of the research, Mark Olfson, wanted proof as to whether marijuana use led to an increased risk for opioid addiction.

Case Study Details

A widescale survey was used as part of the inquiry into the pain panacea habits of more than 43,000 U.S. adults. Some people acknowledged use of marijuana while others did not. Three years after the initial survey took place, there were follow up interviews conducted with approximately 35,000 of the participant group.

The people who did engage in marijuana use at the start of the study were more likely to develop addiction to opioids, clinical or illicit. But Olfson was quick to share that, for most people, opioid addiction would not be a result of marijuana use.

Before I reveal the final analysis on their findings, let’s look at the opposing perspective.

Medical Cannabis Laws Show Direct Link to Drop in Opioid Use

Man taking pills

Before the introduction of medical marijuana into state-approved dispensaries, patients who were suffering with pain due to injury, illness or aging had the following ways to address their discomfort. For acute pain, over-the-counter medications that were readily available at nominal costs provided some relief. For others that had the financial means and open mindedness, holistic healing methodologies offer the benefits of alternative medicines or meditative practices that are less invasive that chemical-based compounds. And finally, there are prescription medications that can be costly, without health insurance, and hard on the liver plus the added risks in developing drug dependence.

While doctors cannot prescribe marijuana like other drugs, there are indications that cannabis dispensaries are making a dent in the rate of opioid use.

Prescription Drug Use Impacted by Dispensaries

The research study, conducted by the University of Georgia and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the legal use of methadone, fentanyl, morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone as it is difficult to include illegal use of these drugs due to inaccurate or lack of reporting.

Of the U.S. states that were part of this five-year project, medical marijuana laws were enacted for none, some or all the time during the research gathering. But looking at when and how legalizing marijuana impacted prescription drug use in each state presented one set of information; how doctors responded to the opportunity was something else.

Overall, the states that had medical cannabis dispensaries showed a significant dip in opioid prescriptions filled, a 14.4 percent drop – even before the term opioid epidemic came to light. Researchers in this study concurred that more information is needed to definitively state that cannabis is a viable option to prescription opioids. Study advocate David Bradford believes that “Regardless, our findings suggest quite clearly that medical cannabis could be one useful tool… to diminish the harm of prescription opioids, and that’s worthy of serious consideration.”

Debunking “Marijuana Leads to Prescription Pill Abuse” Theory

Going back to the first study that indicates marijuana is a gateway drug to opioid use. Researchers in that study did conclude that people who used cannabis were more likely to develop opioid addiction than those who did not ingest marijuana on a regular basis. However, the reasons behind their findings appear speculative, citing that accessibility to one drug increases likelihood of accessibility or desire for other drugs.

Patients remain somewhat in the dark about a definitive answer for recommended best practices in how to effectively treat pain with minimal risk of addiction. Because there are conflicting reports on whether marijuana is addictive as well.

What seems to be the underlying common theme is that drug use and its escalation into abuse and addiction don’t rest on the substance but the nature of addiction itself. To understand the mechanics of how addiction arises, a drug treatment program must be created for each individual seeking help.

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