Die-hard cannabis advocates would like to convince the population marijuana legalization will be the magical cure-all for the opioid epidemic. It’s the same group that proselytizes weed as a panacea for cancer and other ailments that claim hundreds of thousands of lives on an annual basis.
This spiel about cannabis being a miracle elixir is the new reefer madness—a plant that previously earned users labels of stoners and potheads is suddenly all we need to live longer, healthier lives.
But at least where opioid addiction is concerned, medical experts are not convinced that cannabis has the power to change the world for the better.
A few studies have surfaced over the past couple years that suggest opioid use is down in states that have legalized marijuana for therapeutic purposes. There is some proof that, when they can, a percentage of patients will substitute prescription painkillers with cannabis products. There have also been studies showing that just putting opioid addicts on medical marijuana, as opposed to methadone and other traditional drug treatments, would likely have detrimental and even life-threatening effects.
So while people who use opioids as a way to escape chronic pain might be able to use a cannabis alternative, those locked into the grips of hardcore addiction may not be so easily saved.
Still, a small body of evidence suggest cannabis medicine might be beneficial in treating opioid addicts.
A paper from Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research shows the herb might help addicts through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. This means a cannabis alternative might be a substantial first step in addiction therapy.
“The reason that cannabis can be helpful in this way is that biologically, the human cannabis and opioid systems interact very closely,” Jonathan Stea, Ph.D., wrote in a recent article for Scientific American.
“This is exciting because it means that there is much promise for the development and use of cannabis-based medicines in the treatment of opioid addiction,” he added.
On the other hand, cannabis could never take the place of opioids entirely. There are those who are suffering from more severe pain conditions than the ones often used as a reason to get on medical marijuana. Patients that have endured trauma and battlefield injuries, not to mention surgeries, are not likely going to smoke themselves into comfort. The same goes for a lot of cancer patients.
While marijuana might help ease the pain for some people, it does not work the same kind of magic as opioids. The two substances do not provide the same effects obviously. Furthermore, contrary to the exposition of cannabis use in recent years, some people just don’t enjoy the effects of marijuana.
So while cannabis might be a part of the answer, Stea says “because the opioid crisis is a multilayered and multi-causal problem that demands an equally multipronged solution” it would be naïve to think that it can snuff it out entirely. “It is unhealthy to think otherwise,” he wrote.
Although research will probably indicate one day that cannabis has a positive role in combating certain pain conditions, more science is needed before that understanding becomes clear. It could be years before this happens. First, the U.S. government must eliminate the plant from the confines of its Schedule I classification on the Controlled Substances Act. From there, anything is possible.