With opioid addiction taking a devastating toll on Americans across all demographics, more and more voices are calling for safer alternatives. Could one of those alternatives be medical marijuana?

Could Marijuana Replace Opioids and Prescription Pain Medication?

In the United States, you are statistically more likely to die by overdosing on opioids – a group of drugs, including OxyContin and Vicodin, that treat severe pain by targeting certain receptors – than by being involved in a car accident. This statistic made national headlines in January, when the National Safety Council released a report comparing the odds of an overdose death (1 in 96) to the odds of a car accident death (1 in 103). Opioid-related deaths are a national epidemic, accounting for “over two-thirds of [the approximate 70,000 drug] overdose deaths [that occurred] in 2017,” according to one CDC press release. Some communities – often, though not always, rural or small towns – are disproportionately affected, with especially high rates of death in the Midwest and Northeastern United States.

These are merely a handful of statistics that point to a national health crisis. There is no shortage of disturbing data about widespread opioid-related deaths. The bigger question is, where might researchers look for safer alternatives?

In 2017, the Journal of Pain Research, a peer-reviewed medical journal, published a study titled “Cannabis as a Substitute for Prescription Drugs,” which, as the name suggests, examined marijuana as a substitute for prescribed medication. According to the study authors, about half of the respondents (46%) – more than 1,200 people – “reported using cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs.”

Which types of drugs? The researchers answered that question, too: most commonly opioids (35.8%), followed by benzodiazepines (13.6%), which are generally used to treat seizures, insomnia, or anxiety, and antidepressants (12.7%). Notice that roughly one in 10 respondents reported using cannabis as a substitute for antidepressants or benzodiazepines, whereas more than one third of respondents said the same about opioids. According to the study, “These data are in line with previous research suggesting that cannabis is commonly used as a substitute for prescription drugs. […] In 2017, [researchers] Lucas and Walsh found that 63% of 271 such subjects reported substituting cannabis for prescription drugs such as opioids (30%), benzodiazepines (16%) and antidepressants (12%)… the same top three categories as data presented here.” (To learn more about how marijuana can relieve pain or provide relief from anxiety and depression, see my previous articles on marijuana for back pain, marijuana for depression, or marijuana for anxiety.)

In its conclusion, the study authors highlighted that during the year 2015, “two million Americans aged ≥12 years had a substance use disorder that involved prescription pain relievers,” pointing out “CDC… reports that overdoses from prescription opioids are a ‘driving factor’ in the increase in opiate overdose deaths over the past 15 years.”

Should I Keep Taking My Medication if I Start Using Medical Marijuana?

There is plentiful evidence that thousands of people are choosing to use marijuana as a substitute for opioids, benzodiazepines, or other prescription medications. While this has some promising research implications, it should not be interpreted as a cue to stop taking your medication.

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: you should never discontinue your medication unless directed by your physician. It can be very dangerous to stop taking certain medications. Even though medical marijuana can deliver swift-acting, powerful relief from a wide range of symptoms and side effects, it is crucial to talk with your doctor before you make any changes to your treatment plan. In many cases, the best approach is to supplement – not replace – an existing care plan with cannabis therapy.

What Types of Symptoms or Side Effects Can Marijuana Treat?

Cannabis can provide profound relief, often with few side effects, from a wide range of disorders and their symptoms. However, to reiterate one more time: you should always consult with your physician before you stop taking any medications. Depending on what medications you are taking, there could be dangerous complications if you halt your treatment.

In Massachusetts, state law currently recognizes several conditions that qualify for medical marijuana (referred to as “debilitating medical conditions”). These conditions are:

  • ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Cancer (all types, in addition to pain or nausea resulting from radiation and chemotherapy)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Hepatitis C
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease

However, other conditions can also qualify a patient for a Massachusetts medical marijuana card. In addition, individuals who would not necessarily qualify on a medical basis can still benefit from using cannabis to enhance their overall wellness – for example, marijuana for mindfulness and meditation.

Massachusetts Medical Marijuana for Pain Relief, Depression, and Anxiety

At Inhale MD, we are dedicated to helping Americans across the country access accurate, up-to-date information about the therapeutic use of cannabis. Whether the client’s goal is to manage pain, gain weight, sleep better, or simply explore positive lifestyle changes, our mission is increasing awareness and improving lives. Contact us online to set up a consultation, or call Inhale MD at (617) 861-8519 to get started.