Will Marijuana End the Painkiller Epidemic?
I recently stumbled across a great article that explored how medical marijuana can be used to treat patients with chronic pain. The article argued that, among other things, medical grade pot may be a safer alternative to prescription painkillers.
I’m not a doctor and don’t know whether that claim has any basis in fact. What I do know is the article painted a pretty accurate picture of the state of pain medicine in America. It also tugged on my heartstrings and sent me down a rabbit hole of information gathering.
Enter Ian Young, a fortysomething man who’s had chronic pain for over a decade. Young was in a car accident in the mid-90’s and was left with pain in his neck and a nasty addiction to opioid pills.
At the height of his doctor-sanctioned addiction, Young was taking 240 milligrams of Vicodin and 225 milligrams of Percocet each day. Those are some pretty high doses. He was also on a slew of pills to counteract the side effects of his painkillers (think constipation, etc.).
Young estimates that he was taking as many as fifteen different medications each day. He said, “I was probably taking more prescriptions than my grandfather” (Aljazeera America).
After reaching his breaking point, or rock bottom if you prefer, Young began to wean himself off of narcotic painkillers. He was soon taking a significantly lower dose of painkillers, but was left with neck pain. His solution? Medical marijuana.
Young lives in Washington State which, in 2012, legalized pot for recreational use. Young began to buy recreational marijuana and use it for medical purposes (less red tape than going a strictly medical route, I assume). He’s now a member of the approximately two million American’s who uses some form of medical marijuana.
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Marijuana’s Painkilling Benefits
Marijuana has a number of medical benefits. While not all of these, or even most, relate to decreasing pain, there are some known positives about using marijuana as a painkiller.
In the early 2000’s, California budgeted $10 million for medical marijuana study. Barth Wilsey was one of the first to conduct research on whether pot had any painkilling effects. Wilsey, a pain specialist at the Davis Medical Center at the University of California, started looking into how pot may reduce neuropathic pain.
His findings concluded that yes, marijuana does have painkilling effects. Interestingly enough, the short-term analgesic properties displayed by marijuana can occur after consuming marijuana with a very low THC concentration.
Consider that recreational weed has anywhere from a 6 to 20% THC concentration. Painkilling marijuana can contain as little as 1.3% THC. This small amount of THC will produce no psychoactive effects. Imagine a medication that can relieve pain without any psychoactive effects. Sounds good to me!
Ian Young abundantly confirms this. His preferred strain of analgesic marijuana is something called “20:1.” This strain is named for its concentration of CBD (marijuana’s primary “sedative” chemical) to THC. Young has stated, “I don’t get high off of it, but I get extreme pain relief immediately, like an opioid” (Aljazeera America).
It’s worth noting that chronic pain is one of the main reasons that people opt for medical marijuana in the first place. In fact, in 2013 a survey was conducted at a Michigan medical marijuana dispensary. The results confirm that pot and painkilling go hand-in-hand.
Over 85% of the patients receiving medical marijuana use it to relieve chronic pain. Again, that’s a stark first-person testimonial to the analgesic effects of marijuana.
Another benefit of marijuana used for medical purposes is the general quality of life improvement it offers over opioids. According to Ken Mackie, a neuroscientist at Indiana University,
“Medical marijuana is probably better for treating chronic pain, where the goal is to increase a person’s quality of life, ability to communicate with family and friends and hold down a job” (Aljazeera America).
Medical Marijuana > Prescription Opioids
In addition to the general benefits that analgesic marijuana offers, there’s one specific fact that may make it preferable to opioids. Simply put, states with medical or recreational marijuana have fewer opioid overdose deaths.
That’s not a typo, I said fewer overdose deaths. In the midst of a painkiller epidemic, these states have figured out a way to reduce the mortality rate of prescription painkillers. Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont have a cumulative 24.8% lower annual overdose death rate than the rest of the country.
What about patients that want to use both opioids and marijuana as painkillers? Well, here we get into some really interesting research. A study was conducted on individuals with chronic pain and prescriptions for sustained release morphine and oxycodone.
The study found that when a small amount of medical grade marijuana (remember, this isn’t potent pot but rather pot with a low THC percentage) was added to a sustained release morphine or oxycodone regiment, pain was decreased by 27% without increasing the concentration of opioids in patients’ blood.
This means that medical grade marijuana, when taken in small amounts (up to three hits of vaporized pot per day), can be used to reduce prescription painkiller doses while still maintaining analgesic levels.
Up to now we’ve been looking at potential medical and scientific benefits of marijuana’s painkilling abilities. But what about the very human benefits? What about individuals who are finally offered a choice? Individuals who are finally offered way out from doctor-approved opioid addiction?
Well, once again we return to Ian Young. When asked about how using marijuana for pain relief has affected him, Young said, “In the past six months, I’ve taken one oxycodone. The rest of the time I’ve been taking cannabis. Even today, I can’t believe I’ve gotten here” (Aljazeera America).
Remember, this is someone who was taking over 200 milligrams of two different painkillers each day. This is someone who was taking more than fifteen different medications at once. If medical marijuana can offer someone freedom from that level of doctor-sanctioned addiction, well, it may be worth considering.