The United States is experiencing what’s rightfully being called an  opioid epidemic . The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that an average of 91 Americans die each day as a result of opioid abuse and overdose-and not just heroin. This includes deaths caused by prescribed medications, like many that are prescribed by doctors to alleviate their patients’ pains. These medications, while they have their appropriate place in the medical field, can be extremely dangerous. Addiction, kidney damage and death are three things that many pain sufferers are now choosing to minimize their chances of experiencing, by choosing cannabis over opioids.

Facts About the US Opioid Epidemic (statistics taken from 2015)

  • 5 million people misused their prescribed opioid medication.
  • 1 million of that 12.5 million had abused prescription opioids for the first time that year.
  • 33,091 people died from opioid medication overdoses.
  • 135,000 people used heroin for the first time.
  • 828,000 people in total used heroin that year.
  • 12,989 deaths were reportedly related to heroin overdoses.

How Access to Legal Cannabis Can Curb Opioid Deaths

Over half of the country’s states have embraced legal medical cannabis as a means of dealing with a host of ailments, including chronic pain. Opioids are prescribed frequently in sufferers of painful disorders, and that is where the slope to addiction often begins. A person is injured, and to manage their pain is prescribed an opioid painkiller. Because these pharmaceuticals are highly habit-forming, they can become easily misused-and the patient becomes addicted. This is not the case for every person who struggles with an opioid addiction, but it is true for many who only got on the pills because they needed to manage their legitimate pain.

According to  a 2017 study , as many as 93% of pain patients prefer medical cannabis over the pills. And who can blame them? Cannabis can’t kill you. It isn’t addictive. It effectively manages pain without many of the side effects that opioid users find undesirable (like excessive grogginess, “zoning out,” and difficulty in waking after sleep). The results of the study were pretty clear:

  • Patients who use both cannabis and opioids reported using less of their painkillers when they had access to legal medical cannabis.
  • Participants in the study cited the dangerous side-effects of opioid medication as a reason to minimize or even stop their use in their daily lives. They leaned toward cannabis because of its lack of side effects while effectively helping to relieve their pain.
  • 2,810 of the participants were using cannabis. Of that number, only 828 reported using opioids in the past six months.
  • 97% of these participants either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they are able to decrease their consumption of opioid painkillers when they had access to cannabis.
  • 89% of participants “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that prescription opioids caused undesirable side effects, like constipation and nausea.
  • In an interesting response, researchers found that 81% of all participants stated that using cannabis by itself was more effective than using it in combination with their prescribed medication.

This is hugely important information, because it reinforces the ever-expanding wealth of information that we have in relation to cannabis’ effectiveness at helping people to deal with pain. When less people use opioids in the first place, that means that less people are going to die from them.  In states where medical cannabis is accessible to pain sufferers, 25% fewer opioid-related deaths are reported.

The Rise of Opioid Medication Prescriptions

In a CDC analysis of opioid pain medication users between 2007 and 2012, the center discovered that the rate of prescription for these medications vary wildly across the fifty states. In 2012, the highest-prescribing state issued three times the amount of opioid prescriptions as the lowest-prescribing state.

The over-prescribing of these powerful medications is something that has drawn a great amount of concern from addiction advocates, healthcare officials and others who wish to see this epidemic come to an end. In 2012,  Sheila Bartels  died from an overdose after picking up 510 pills, all legally prescribed to her by her physician. The irresponsible physician involved was charged with her death after prescribing the woman a toxic cocktail of Xanax, Hydrocodone and Soma.

Her highly-discussed death brought about another pressing conversation in America: How can doctors get away with this? Why are they prescribing so many opioid medications to people, knowing that the risks are what they are?

WebMD  reports that the vast majority of doctors prescribe these medications in excess of the federally recommended limit of a three-day dosage. Some of these doctors over-prescribe by quite a lot, with some regularly dishing out month-long prescriptions for opioid medications.

“Doctors are well-intentioned and want to help their patients, but these findings are further proof that we need more education and training if we want to treat pain most effectively,” said Dr. Donald Teater of the National Safety Council. The US Food and Drug Administration as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have both put forth efforts to curb this over-prescription of opioids by imposing tougher restrictions on how these medications should be prescribed as well as implementing warning labels on any packaging that contains opioids.

Three-quarters of American doctors indicated in the study cited by WebMD that they believed in opioid painkillers (particularly Oxycodone and Morphine) as the best method of providing pain relief to their patients. But experts from the safety council state that in many of these cases, over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen can be sufficient in managing pain. In the same study, the safety council found that about half of patients were actually more inclined to see a physician again if they did not offer opioid pain medications.

This isn’t to say that doctors are the only ones who are sourcing individuals with addictive and powerful pharmaceuticals. Some users do not get these medications from a doctor at all, but rather from friends, family members and dealers who have access to them.

Does Cannabis Really Relieve Pain That Effectively?

Anecdotally, there is a lot of support for the use of cannabis as a means of pain relief. Some people who would never have otherwise turned to cannabis have made it a part of their lives after realizing the pain-reducing benefits of it. Some chronic pain sufferers have even moved to more cannabis-friendly states to have access to their chosen medicine. From muscle aches, to menstrual cramps, to chronic pain disorders, sufferers of all walks of life have praised the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Fortunately, chronic pain is one of the most thoroughly researched applications of medical cannabis.

Harvard conducted a systematic review of  28 studies  that looked into the usefulness of medical cannabis in the treatment of pain-inducing disorders. Of the studies reviewed, they found that:

  • 6 out of 6 general chronic pain studies found an improvement in symptoms among patients.
  • 5 out of 5 neuropathic pain studies found an improvement in symptoms among patients.
  • In the neuropathic pain group, three of the five participants smoked cannabis for pain. The other two made use of oral sprays.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ingesting cannabis for any purpose, including medically. Some might not like the effects they achieve after smoking, and might prefer a low-dose edible product instead. That’s one beauty of cannabis as medicine: there are many methods of ingestion, so pain sufferers can pick and choose what methods, doses and strains work best for them. It requires a bit of trial and error, sure, but the budtender at your local dispensary should be able to help you out!

The evidence of cannabis’ ability as a significantly safer pain-relieving medication is piling up all of the time, both anecdotally and scientifically. It is the hope of many that the states that still enforce total cannabis prohibition look to the success of these states in reducing opioid-related deaths in how they decide to move forward.