"It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis." — Donald Trump, August 10, 2017
The legal marijuana industry — and the medical marijuana industry, specifically — is exploding, and it’s not difficult to see why. Despite the fact that the drug’s illegality at the federal level limits its ability to be used by researchers in large, well-designed studies, a considerable (and increasing) number of people are using cannabis to find relief from an increasing number of diseases and medical conditions.
Cannabis can reportedly serve as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients, reduce nausea and vomiting for those going through chemotherapy, and provide relief from an array of symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions. However, the one benefit of medical marijuana that might be getting the most attention — and the one that is perhaps doing the most to change the minds of previously prohibitionist politicians and others — is the drug’s ability to make a serious dent in the nation’s current opioid crisis.
Opioid Crisis a “National Emergency”
According to government data, 33,000 of the 52,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2015 were the result of the use of opioids like heroin and fentanyl. President Trump has declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency,” and his administration is drafting paperwork that would pave the way for a national response to the epidemic similar to that of the response to natural disasters. Six states have also declared emergencies because of the epidemic – declarations that have helped states receive federal grants for treatment services and improved reporting of overdoses, and that have also helped expand access to naloxone, a medication that can revive overdose victims.
As important as it is to be able to revive people who’ve overdosed, however, it’s more important to prevent those overdoses from happening in the first place. Medical marijuana can make a difference in this area, and, as research shows, those most at risk for opioid addiction are more than willing to give it a shot.
Swapping opioids for Medical Marijuana
A recent survey of 3,000 medical cannabis patients found that almost all of them say they could significantly reduce their dependence on opioids by adding adding cannabis to their treatment regimens, and a vast majority would prefer to use cannabis over the prescription pills they currently take.
The study, conducted by the University of California Berkeley and medical cannabis site HelloMD.com, found that 97% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that consuming cannabis could help them decrease their use of opioid painkillers. Almost as many (92%) said they agreed or strongly agreed when asked if they preferred cannabis to treat their medical conditions. Also notable was the fact that 81% agreed or strongly agreed that taking cannabis by itself was more effective than taking it with either opioids or non-opioid-based pain medication.
“Patients have been telling us for decades that this practice is producing better outcomes than the use of opioid-based medications,” says Amanda Reiman, one of the researchers who led the study. “It’s past time for the medical profession to get over their reefer madness and start working with the medical cannabis movement and industry to slow down the destruction being caused by the over prescribing and overuse of opioids.”
When it Becomes Personal, Perspectives Change
Medical professionals aren’t the only group who’ve needlessly kept medical marijuana out of the hands of those who could use it the most. Politicians, too, have had a sort of reefer madness of their own. But things are starting to change.
Three years ago, when South Carolina lawmakers passed strict legislation allowing patients with severe epilepsy, or their caregivers, to legally possess the drug, Marine veteran and South Carolina Rep. Eric Bedingfield voted against the measure.
Later, however, after his son’s six-year battle with opioid addiction ended with a overdose, Bedingfield reconsidered his stance and co-sponsored medical cannabis legislation. He is now optimistic that medical marijuana can replace opioid painkillers, helping curb an epidemic he's seen destroy families of all economic levels — including his own.
"My mindset has changed from somebody who looked down on it as a negative substance to saying, 'This has benefits,'" Bedingfield said recently.
When it comes to health benefits, saving lives is a pretty big one.