How This Weed Study May Help End The Painkiller Epidemic

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Take your medicine

Before we go any further with this article about weed, and doctors, and addiction, I want to make it clear that I know very little about weed, even less about being a doctor, and I am completely (and thankfully) ignorant about addiction. The issue of painkiller abuse in the United States is incredibly complex and incredibly sad, and like most incredibly complex and sad things, there are no easy solutions to fix the problem.

But there is definitely a problem:

According to The Center for Disease Control, 46 people die from prescription painkiller overdoses every day in the United States. Between 1991 and 2013, prescriptions for painkillers has increased by 172%.

I won’t attempt to unpack the many reasons for the meteoric increase in painkiller prescriptions (though Austin Frakt does a very good job of it in his New York Times article), but is clear that (and these are the words of the Food and Drug Administration, not mine) “[o]piod abuse is a devastating epidemic facing our nation.

And while I have made a career writing dick jokes and burrito essays, it feels wrong (and maybe even disrespectful) to speak about a potential solution to this complex and devastating problem. That being said, I will proceed with this:

A recent study by McGill University — which shows no adverse effects after long-term use of medical marijuana to treat chronic pain — appears to be a promising step in finding a solution to the epidemic of painkiller abuse in the United States. According to the study published in the (distractingly goth-sounding) Journal of Pain:

In conclusion, this study suggests that the adverse effects of medical cannabis are modest and comparable quantitatively and qualitatively to prescription cannabinoids. The results suggest that cannabis at average doses of 2.5g/d in current cannabis users may be safe as part of carefully monitored pain management program when conventional treatments have been considered medically inappropriate or inadequate.

I have spent my time reading McGill’s study, researching medical marijuana, and trying to speak with managers at marijuana dispensaries to better understand the implications of this study, but so far, the only definitive lesson I have learned is people at medical marijuana dispensaries really don’t like talking to the press. So, I’ll stick to the most basic facts:

Fact 1: Painkillers are addictive

Fact 2: Marijuana is much less addictive

Fact 3: In 2011 alone, “[o]pioid pain relievers were involved in 16,917 overdose deaths”

Fact 4: Dying from a weed overdose is, in the words of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “not very likely.”

Fact 5: In states with access to medical marijuana, “25 percent fewer people die from opioid overdoses annually.”

McGill University’s study is neither perfect, nor the last word on the long-term effects of medical marijuana, but at the very least, it represents an important step toward more widespread use of medical marijuana in pain management. Certainly medical marijuana is not the right choice for every patient and every situation, but compared to standard painkillers it is a far safer and less addictive way to treat chronic pain.

And since the amount of research I have done into painkiller addiction has made me feel like Artax in the swamp of sadness, allow me to present one of the other benefits marijuana has given the world besides safer and less addicting medication:

(Author’s note: let’s just all agree that “marijuana” was the only substance that inspired this song, okay?)