Photo by Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

Marijuana access reduces opioid use, research finds

Given a choice between cannabis and opioids, users choose cannabis

March 05, 2018 - 1:40 pm

America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Millions are addicted to prescription pain killers, and with tens of thousands of deaths each year, drug overdose has become the leading cause of accidental death in the country.

Veterans are especially susceptible. In fact, they’re twice as likely to overdose as non-veterans.

New research now coming to light suggests that marijuana could directly help those inflicted in the ongoing opioid crisis. On the whole, states that have legalized medical marijuana experience lower rates of opioid use.

Cannabis is directly linked to decreased opioid use, according to a new report released by the Minnesota Department of Health. 63 percent of patients surveyed, who are registered in the state’s medical marijuana program, “were able to reduce or eliminate opioid usage after six months.”  

Far away from being the first of its kind, this report joins a growing body of research into cannabis’ effects on opioid use. A clinical study conducted last year by the Columbia University Medical Center, found that patients who turned to marijuana didn’t abuse it like they had with opioids.

Studies in Illinois and New Mexico came to similar conclusions.

Despite marijuana potentially being a part of solving America’s opioid crisis, cannabis is hard to research since it is still classified as a “Schedule I” drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, a list that also includes heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Other countries are leading the way as a result.

In Israel, where medical marijuana use is permitted, one recent study has also found that opioid users experienced a drop in overall usage when given the opportunity to use marijuana instead. In other words, given a choice between legal cannabis use and potentially deadly opioid use, people reach for the pot.

No death from a marijuana overdose has ever been reported, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Many veterans view cannabis an alternative to addictive and dangerous opioids. Some of them went to Capitol Hill last November to call on the government to allow the research.

The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, has continually called on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to expand research into marijuana as a potential way to treat some of the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.

Last year, they commissioned a national survey and the results are clear: Veterans overwhelmingly support medical marijuana research and legalization.

Last month, Rep Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs told reporters. “There is so much controversy about cannabis now.”

But, he also encouraged VA Secretary David Shulkin to allow the department to study marijuana use in veterans.

“We need to study that drug, like any other drug. Where there are benefits—if there are any—then we use it for what it’s researched for,” said Roe.

Poe’s position reflects those of Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House VA committee, who requested in October that Shulkin authorize research into cannabis.

In a letter sent to the Secretary, in October Walz and other Democrats on the committee referred to the ongoing opioid crisis and the increasing demand from veterans who want to use marijuana as an available alternative to opioids to treat chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.