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Treating Pain: Medical Marijuana vs. the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid crisis in the US has led many to wonder if the growing legalization of medical and recreational marijuana will see cannabis replacing opioids as pain medication. 


According to an article in Scientific American, “Prescription opioid overdoses killed more than 165,000 Americans between 1999 and 2014, and the health and social costs of abusing such drugs are estimated to be as much as $55 billion a year” (Hsu, 2017). With medical marijuana legal in twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia, “several companies like publicly-traded GW Pharmaceuticals and Cara Therapeutics are developing drugs” from cannabis and its “potent” cannabinoids (Tindera, 2017). 


Despite many studied touting the benefits of medical marijuana for treating pain (Hsu, 2017), many in the field of health care are skeptical, to say the least. Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stated, “The huge problem with legalization is that . . . what we’re looking at is the prospect of having Big Tobacco paralleled by Big Marijuana actively promoting marijuana use. It could be very harmful for some people and some communities” (Tindera, 2017; Fuhr, 2017). Furthermore, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Wilson Compton said, “While it looks like there’s a general signal, we don’t know who the marijuana, or the cannabinoids within the plant, might be useful for. And that’s where I think research needs to move” (Fuhr, 2017; Tindera, 2017).


On the other side of the debate, Andrew Kolodny, codirector of the Brandeis University Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, disagreed with the skepticism surrounding medical marijuana for patients. ““If I had a patient who was suffering from severe intractable pain and had tried everything, I would sooner try marijuana on a patient than heroin. When you are prescribing opioids, you are essentially giving them heroin,” he said (Fuhr, 2017; Tindera, 2017). 




Fuhr, P. (2017). Will cannabis replace opioids as painkillers? Retrieved from https://www.thefix.com/will-cannabis-replace-opioids-painkillers
Hsu, J. (2017). Could medical cannabis break the painkiller epidemic? Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/could-medical-cannabis-break-the-painkiller-epidemic/
Tindera, M. (2017). Could marijuana replace opioids as a painkiller? Experts are skeptical. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michelatindera/2017/12/03/could-marijuana-replace-opioids-as-a-painkiller-experts-are-skeptical/#77c7dc406209