Although anecdotal and some scientific evidence suggests that cannabis could be a safer alternative to opioids for treating pain management, the drug’s status as a Schedule I narcotic makes it impossible to conduct the research needed to confirm its efficacy.
Background on the Opioid Epidemic
Over 70% of all drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2019 involved opioids. That would be nearly 50,000 people.
Opioids are substances that work in the nervous system of the body to reduce the intensity of pain. Doctors prescribe opioid medications for such disparate reasons as pain from a disability to pain from an injury. Over the past few decades, pharmaceutical companies have bolstered opioid painkillers and, as a result, inundated the public with some incredibly addictive substances.
Very often when people run out of the prescription, they turn to street drugs, like heroin or fentanyl, to get the same or greater high. This raises their risk of dying from an overdose. Recognizing that opioid prescriptions have led to such destruction, medical cannabis proponents have argued that doctors should consider cannabis as an alternative. However, a lack of research into cannabis has made it difficult for it to be accepted widespread for medical use.
Why There Is a Lack of Research
Although there is a growing list of states that have already approved cannabis for medical and recreational purposes, the drug remains federally illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. As a result, many of the nation’s institutions that would be studying its uses are unable to do so because such a trial would be a violation of federal law, which could mean all their funding would be withdrawn.
Advantages to Cannabis for Pain Relief
Proponents of cannabis use as a method for reducing pain point to a number of studies that could indicate its positive impact. Several of those studies and findings include:
- An Israeli researcher who found that marijuana gave substantial pain relief to more than 600 cancer patients who used it for six months
- A study of 47 Parkinson’s patients found a 27 percent improvement in pain with marijuana use
- Medical marijuana has helped ease fibromyalgia pain for 26 patients, half of whom stopped taking any other medicines for the disease
- An Austrian review of 32 studies found that marijuana might have modest effects on the pain and muscle plasticity that comes with multiple sclerosis
There are many opponents to marijuana usage for medical purposes. Most of the criticisms revolve around its negative side effects. Since research into the drug is still modest, we are not exactly certain of marijuana’s total negative effects. But some of its known negative side effects include that it could make users more likely to be in a car accident, it could lead to more frequent bronchitis if it is smoked regularly, and it may raise the odds of developing schizophrenia and depression.
For now, we still do not know if marijuana will ever replace opioids for pain management, though some research indicates that it could be the better option.