The Opioid Crisis: Can Cannabis Help?

For people suffering from chronic pain, opioids like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and Demerol have often been the only way to get relief. But that relief comes at a high price, as these drugs have a high risk for [button class=”button” cct=”f” target=”_self” cc=”custom4″ ccv=”5″ cch=”custom6″ cchv=”5″ cco=”custom6″ ccov=”5″ ltp=”384″ ]addiction[/button] and accidental overdose. Today there are more than 64,000 deaths a year in the U.S. from opioid overdose, more than either car accidents or guns.

Another problem with opioids is that users build tolerance to the drugs. Says Dr. Erin Krebs of the University of Minnesota, “Within a few weeks or months of taking an opioid on a daily basis, your body gets used to that level of opioid, and you need more and more to get the same level of effect.”

Opioid tolerance lessens pain relief over time

Dr. Krebs is the author of a new study published March 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looks at the effectiveness of opioids and non-opioids for the long-term treatment of pain. That study found that at 12 months there was no difference between opioids and drugs like acetaminophen or naproxen, most likely because of opioid tolerance.1

Because of the dangers of opioids and the buildup of tolerance to the drugs, medical science is intensifying the search for pain relief alternatives. One of those alternatives may be cannabis or CBD.

Science increasingly backs cannabis

One scientific study conducted jointly by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Kent State University finds that

Cannabis can be an effective treatment for pain, greatly reduces the chance of dependence, and eliminates the risk of fatal overdose compared to opioid-based medications. Medical cannabis patients report that cannabis is just as effective, if not more, than opioid-based medications for pain.

The study looked at survey data from 2,897 medical cannabis patients, finding that 34% of the sample reported also using opioid pain medications in the past six months. “Respondents overwhelmingly reported that cannabis provided relief on par with their other medications, but without the unwanted side effects,” said the study. What’s more, “97% of the sample ‘strongly agreed/agreed’ that they are able to decrease the amount of opiates they consume when they also use cannabis,” and “81% ‘strongly agreed/agreed’ that taking cannabis by itself was more effective at treating their condition than taking cannabis with opioids.2

This study relied on self-reported results, which are often not the most accurate way to test a hypothesis. Still, the results are robust enough to encourage further, more clinical research into cannabis as an alternative to opioids.

A separate study published in the Journal of Pain in 2016 found that in a survey of 244 patients with chronic pain, 64% decreased opioid use after starting medical cannabis treatment.3

There is no shortage of evidence that cannabis and CBD are effective in relieving pain. Now there is a growing amount of research indicating that cannabis and CBD could potentially offer an alternative to opioid drugs for pain relief. If so, cannabis could go a long way in helping to end the opioid crisis.