Feds admit marijuana may reduce opioid use

As the country struggles through an opioid crisis, researchers point to an alternative

Anna​ ​was​ ​supposed​ ​to​ ​spend​ ​her​ ​50th​ ​birthday​ ​dancing​ ​with​ ​friends,​ ​not​ ​laid​ ​up​ ​in​ ​bed.​ ​The Texas​ ​grandmother​ ​was​ ​only​ ​49​ ​when​ ​she​ ​suffered​ ​from​ ​a​ ​stroke​ ​in​ ​her​ ​spine,​ ​a​ ​rare,​ ​sudden condition​ ​that​ ​can​ ​leave​ ​its​ ​victims​ ​paralyzed​ ​without​ ​warning.

That​ ​was​ ​five​ ​years​ ​ago.​ ​Now,​ ​Anna​ ​can​ ​stand​ ​and​ ​walk​ ​slowly​ ​with​ ​the​ ​aid​ ​of​ ​a​ ​walker,​ ​but otherwise​ ​she​ ​is​ ​mostly​ ​confined​ ​to​ ​a​ ​wheelchair,​ ​she​ ​tells​ ​ConsumerAffairs.​ ​As​ ​she​ ​began​ ​her  recovery​ ​and​ ​adjusted​ ​to​ ​her​ ​new​ ​life,​ ​doctors​ ​put​ ​Anna​ ​on​ ​a​ ​daily​ ​regimen​ ​of​ ​hydrocodone​ ​pills. The​ ​prescription​ ​drugs​ ​relaxed​ ​her​ ​muscles​ ​and​ ​controlled​ ​clonus,​ ​a​ ​series​ ​of​ ​involuntary 
muscle​ ​spasms​ ​caused by her spinal injury.​ ​​ ​“My​ ​leg​ ​starts​ ​jumping​ ​like​ ​I’m​ ​going​ ​to​ ​a​ ​hoedown,”​ ​she​ ​says.  

The​ ​pills​ ​worked​ ​at​ ​stopping​ ​the​ ​spasms,​ ​but​ ​Anna​ ​didn’t​ ​like​ ​taking​ ​them.​ ​Throughout​ ​her​ ​life, she​ ​says​ ​she​ ​abstained​ ​from​ ​taking​ ​pills​ ​or​ ​drinking​ ​alcohol,​ ​instead​ ​preferring ​to​ ​use​ ​marijuana recreationally.​ ​So​ ​in​ ​2014,​ ​two​ ​years​ ​after​ ​suffering​ ​the​ ​life-altering​ ​stroke,​ ​Anna naturally​ ​worked 
in​ ​a​ ​visit​ ​to​ ​a​ ​dispensary​ ​while​ ​visiting​ ​her​ ​daughter​ ​in​ ​weed-friendly​ ​Colorado.​ ​Anna​ ​explained her​ ​symptoms,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​local​ ​doctor​ ​gave​ ​her​ ​a​ ​selection​ ​of​ ​products​ ​that​ ​were​ ​lower​ ​in​ ​THC​ ​and  higher​ ​in​ ​CBD,​ ​or​ ​the​ ​non-psychoactive​ ​component​ ​​​of​ ​cannabis​ ​thought​ ​to​ ​have​ ​more​ ​medicinal 

The​ ​visit,​ ​Anna​ ​says,​ ​marked​ ​a​ ​new​ ​beginning​ ​in​ ​her​ ​medicine​ ​routine. Now, she uses marijuana whenever the clonus returns, and says it seems to control the spasms by relaxing her muscles. ​She​ ​has​ ​never​ ​had​ ​to take​ ​hydrocodone​ ​pills​ ​again,​ ​she​ ​says.​  ​Though​ ​she is still​ ​living​ ​in Texas,​ ​where​ ​even​ ​legal,  medical​ ​marijuana​ ​is​ ​difficult​ ​for​ ​patients​ ​to​ ​get ​if​ ​they​ ​want​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​the​ ​law,​ ​Anna​ ​finds​ ​a ​supply​ ​through​ ​her own channels​. ​She​ ​never​ ​noticed​ ​any​ ​negative​ ​side​ ​effects​ ​from​ ​the​ ​prescription​ ​pills,​ ​but​ ​she​ ​is​ ​relieved​ ​to​ ​be free​ ​from​ ​them.​ ​“I​ ​don’t​ ​like​ ​taking​ ​pills​ ​at​ ​all,”​ ​she​ ​explains. 

The​ ​medicinal​ ​benefits​ ​of​ ​cannabis​ ​for​ ​many​ ​specific​ ​medical​ ​issues -- spinal​ ​cord​ ​injuries​ ​or opioid​ ​dependence​ ​are​ ​just​ ​two​ ​of​ ​many​ ​conditions​ ​whose​ ​patients​ ​may​ ​benefit​ ​from​ ​cannabis -- are​ ​not all ​well​ ​studied​ ​or​ ​understood.​ ​But​ ​the​ ​anecdotal​ ​evidence​ ​from​ ​patients​ ​like​ ​Anna,​ ​who​ ​did not​ ​want​ ​her​ ​last​ ​name​ ​printed,​ ​is​ ​slowly​ ​gaining​ ​support​ ​from​ ​university​ ​research​ ​and​ ​even​ ​the federal​ ​government.  

Feds see cannabis as potential treatment for opioid abuse

PhotoThe​ ​federal​ ​government’s​ ​website​ ​for​ ​the​ ​National​ ​Institute​ ​on​ ​Drug​ ​Abuse​ ​in​ ​April​ ​2017 updated​ ​its​ ​page​ ​on​ ​marijuana​ ​to​ ​describe​ ​several​ ​recent​ ​studies​ ​that​ ​found​ ​a​ ​trend​ ​between access​ ​to​ ​marijuana​ ​and​ ​decreased​ ​opioid​ ​use.​ ​“Medical​ ​marijuana​ ​products​ ​may​ ​have​ ​a​ ​role​ ​in reducing​ ​the​ ​use​ ​of​ ​opioids​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​control​ ​pain,”​ ​DrugAbuse.gov​ ​now​ ​states.​ ​The​ ​site 
MassRoots​ ​first​ ​noted​ ​and​ ​reported​ ​on​ ​the​ ​change​ ​on​ ​Monday.  

A​ ​record​ ​amount​ ​of​ ​Americans​ ​are​ ​now​ ​hooked​ ​on​ ​opioids,​ ​and​ ​overdoses​ ​from​ ​heroin,​ ​fentanyl or​ ​a​ ​number​ ​of​ ​prescription​ ​opioids​ ​killed​ ​an​ ​estimated​ ​33,000 people​ ​here​ ​in​ ​2015. Recently-confirmed​ ​Attorney​ ​General​ ​Jeff​ ​Sessions,​ ​meanwhile,​ ​has​ ​remained​ ​adamant​ ​despite the evidence that​ ​softening​ ​federal​ ​laws​ ​against​ ​marijuana​ ​will​ ​not​ ​curb​ ​America's opioid​ ​epidemic.  

“I​ ​am​ ​astonished​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​people​ ​suggest​ ​that​ ​we​ ​can​ ​solve​ ​our​ ​heroin​ ​crisis​ ​by​ ​legalizing  marijuana -- so​ ​people​ ​can​ ​trade​ ​one​ ​life-wrecking​ ​dependency​ ​for​ ​another​ ​that’s​ ​only​ ​slightly less​ ​awful,”​ ​Sessions​ ​famously​ ​told​ ​reporters​ ​in​ ​March.         

Medical weed linked to less opioid addicts in the hospital

In​ ​fact,​ research ​published​ ​just​ ​several​ ​weeks​ ​after​ ​Sessions​ ​made​ ​that​ ​claim​ ​found​ ​that​ ​opioid overdoses​ ​may​ ​actually​ ​be​ ​decreasing​ ​with​ ​the​ ​legalization​ ​of​ ​marijuana.​

​Researchers​ ​from​ ​the University​ ​of​ ​California,​ ​San​ ​Diego​ ​aimed​ ​to​ ​study​ ​hospitalization​ ​rates​ ​in​ ​the​ ​28​ ​states​ ​that​ ​have legalized​ ​marijuana,​ ​because​ ​“its​ ​impacts​ ​on​ ​severe​ ​health​ ​consequences​ ​such​ ​as hospitalizations​ ​remain​ ​unknown.”​ ​But​ ​the​ ​researchers​ ​did​ ​not​ ​find​ ​an​ ​epidemic​ ​of  marijuana-related​ ​hospitalizations​ ​in​ ​their​ ​research.​ ​They​ ​found​ ​the​ ​opposite.  

While​ ​hospitals​ ​continue​ ​to​ ​see​ ​an​ ​enormous​ ​amount​ ​of​ ​opioid​ ​overdose​ ​and​ ​opioid​ ​addiction cases,​ ​the​ ​researchers​ ​found​ ​that​ ​opioid​ ​dependency-related​ ​hospitalizations​ ​decreased​ ​by​ ​23 percent​ ​in​ ​states​ ​where​ ​medical​ ​marijuana​ ​is​ ​legal,​ ​and​ ​that​ ​opioid​ ​overdose​ ​cases​ ​decreased  by​ ​13​ ​percent​ ​in​ ​those​ ​same​ ​states.​“​Medical​ ​marijuana​ ​policies​ ​were​ ​significantly​ ​associated​ ​with​ ​reduced OPR-related​ ​hospitalizations,”​ ​or​ ​opioid-related​ ​hospitalizations,​ ​the​ ​researchers​ ​concluded,​ ​“but​ ​had​ ​no​ ​associations 
with​ ​marijuana-related​ ​hospitalizations.”

"This study and a few others provided some evidence regarding the potential positive benefits of legalizing marijuana to reduce opioid use and abuse, but they are still preliminary," the lead researcher later explained to NBC. 

Marijuana and Medicare savings

Another recent study, cited on the the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse website, used Medicare data to track the effect that medical marijuana had on the use of pills, including opioids.

Overall, access to medical marijuana corresponded with an estimated $165.2 million in savings on prescription drugs, as the federal government acknowledges. 

Conflicting laws

Brandon Coats

Patients who credit medical marijuana with improving their quality of life still face hurdles, even in states where recreational or medicinal possession of cannabis is legal. Because cannabis remains illegal under federal law, employers are still allowed to drug test employees and fire those who test positive for cannabis, which is known to stay in a person’s system well after ingestion and after the psychoactive effects have worn off.

Telecommunications giant Dish, for example, seven years ago fired telephone technician Brandon Coats from their Colorado offices after he failed a drug test. Coats, a quadriplegic, similarly said that cannabis controlled the muscle spasms he suffered as a result of his spinal injury. He filed a high-profile lawsuit that ended several years ago in Dish’s favor, with the judges saying that Dish and Dish’s employment policies were protected because of federal regulations classifying cannabis as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. Since getting fired for failing a drug test, Coats has been unable to find a steady job in his field since then, he told ConsumerAffairs last month. 

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