Medical marijuana: Can it help combat the opioid addiction epidemic?

Author: Brian Heuberger - May 24, 2017 - Updated: May 22, 2017

In this Oct. 24, 2016, file photo, marijuana samples await testing at company CannTest. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)
In this Oct. 24, 2016, file photo, medical marijuana samples await testing at company CannTest. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)

National legalization of medical marijuana could not only save lives, it could save $1 billion of taxpayers’ money annually as a result of the drop in Medicaid prescription rates, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.

The researchers found that in nine states where medical marijuana was legal, Medicaid prescriptions for painkillers, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications dropped significantly. In fact, anti-nausea drug prescriptions fell by 17 percent, antidepressant prescriptions fell 13 percent and prescriptions for seizure and psychosis drugs fell 12 percent.

And at a time when the U.S. is facing an opioid epidemic, the researchers found that prescriptions for painkillers fell by 11 percent. This is consistent with other studies that have found opioid overdose rates were reduced in states with medical marijuana laws

“Our work adds to the literature that shows the potential clinical benefits of marijuana,” wrote the study’s authors, Ashley Bradford and W. David Bradford of the University of Georgia. “Our findings suggest that patients and physicians in the community are reacting to the availability of medical marijuana as if it were medicine.”

The authors estimate that if all states would have had medical marijuana laws in place in 2014, the total savings for Medicaid could have been as much as $1.01 billion. In Colorado alone, the researchers estimated the Medicaid savings would save the state more than $14 million a year.

These results are similar to those in a study the authors conducted about the effects of medical marijuana laws on the number of prescriptions within the Medicare population published by Health Affairs in July 2016.

Dustin Mahon counts himself as especially fortunate to have been treated with marijuana to overcome his debilitating opioid addiction. Before creating EndoCanna, one of Colorado’s leading medical cannabis oil companies, Mahon suffered from a rare and agonizing condition known as new daily persistent headache (NDPH) syndrome. Because there is no treatment for the incessant headaches, doctors prescribed Mahon with an abundance of opioid medications.

“I wound up with a hardcore opiate addiction,” Mahon told The Statesman. “I suffered horrible memory loss, and the opiates had destroyed my brain so heavily that I had a 10 second memory where I would have to stop in the middle of a sentence and you’d have to catch me back up with where I was at. It was absolutely awful.”

Unable to find a treatment for his condition and struggling to cope with the side effects of opiates, Mahon’s wife encouraged him to try marijuana. Mahon was amazed to discover that marijuana alleviated his headaches and was ecstatic that he had finally found an effective treatment.

“My brain started working for the first time in six years,” said Mahon, who threw out the OxyContin he was taking and hasn’t touched any in five years. “Suddenly things were good and I wasn’t on any opiates. It was a feeling that was foreign to me, and I realized that it was life without pain. It was like lightning bolts of good feeling shooting through my body for the first time in my adult life.”

Researchers have identified how medical marijuana can treat physical pain. THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, can connect with neuron receptors that mediate pain and then block those receptors from sending or receiving pain signals.

“Marijuana can likely work in many ways to treat pain,” said Dr. Daniel Clauw, who is an anesthesiology professor at the University of Michigan and the director of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center (CPFRC). “Marijuana has some anti-inflammatory properties that might be useful for certain types of pain. Most of its effects are in the brain, and it works, at least in part, by dissociating someone from the sensory unpleasantness of pain.”

This helps some patients treat various conditions with marijuana medicines rather than opioids, which are highly addictive.

“I agree with this approach because marijuana is at least as effective for most types of chronic pain as opioids,” said Clauw. “There is also no question they are safer, as 35,000 people in the U.S. die of opioid overdoses every year and none from marijuana.”

Many studies conducted by Clauw and the CPFRC suggest that medical marijuana can potentially help relieve the national opioid crisis.

“We published a study last year showing that pain patients reported lowering their opioid dose by two-thirds when they started using cannabis,” said Clauw. “When they did that, they felt overall better because there were less side effects of the cannabis than the opioids. Other studies show that states that pass medical marijuana or legalization laws have drops in their opioid overdose rates by up to 30 percent.”

While the researchers of the Health Affairs study also found their results promising, they cautioned about self-medicating with cannabis without oversight by a physician, noting that “it is plausible that forgoing medications with known safety, efficacy and dosing profiles in favor of marijuana could be harmful under some circumstances.”

“An important next step for medical marijuana law researchers will be to secure data on individual patients over time to assess these and related questions,” they wrote.

Brian Heuberger

Brian Heuberger

Brian Heuberger is a contributing reporter to The Colorado Statesman.


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