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Can Medical Marijuana Help Solve the Opioid Crisis?


February 2, 2018
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As Lawmakers & Public Health Officials Grapple With How Best to Combat the Opioid Crisis, Medical Marijuana is Emerging as a Safer Tool to Manage Pain

The deadly opioid epidemic shows no signs of slowing down, despite the widespread attention it is finally receiving. At least 1,901 people died from opioid overdoses in New Jersey in 2016.

Can Medical Marijuana Help Solve Opioid Crisis?

Photo courtesy of Thought Catalog (Unsplash.com)

As lawmakers and public health officials grapple with how best to combat the opioid crisis, medical marijuana is emerging as a safer tool to manage pain. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which represents one of the most comprehensive studies of recent research on the health effects of cannabis, concluded there is “strong evidence” that cannabis is effective at managing chronic pain in adults relative to a placebo.

Growing Opioid Crisis

Drug overdose deaths involving opioids have skyrocketed in recent years. Below are several startling statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. More than six out of ten of the fatal overdoses involved an opioid.
  • Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids—including prescription both opioid pain relievers and heroin—nearly quadrupled.
  • From 2000 to 2015, more than 500,000 people died from drug overdoses.
  • Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose. 

Several factors have contributed to the rapid increase in opioid-related overdoses, including a rise on prescriptions for the potent painkillers. Since 1999, the number of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled. However, there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report.

The majority of opioid deaths involve individuals with no history of substance abuse. In many cases, opioid addiction starts with a valid prescription after surgery or other medical treatment. Once the opioid medication runs out or becomes too expensive, people often turn to street drugs like heroin.

In 2013, providers wrote nearly a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions, which is enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills. Opioids are also increasingly prescribed for chronic pain. Although they may provide short-term relief, the medications have not proven to be an effective long-term solution.

New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program

New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in 2010 with the enactment of the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (the “Act”). The New Jersey Department of Health implemented the Act by creating the New Jersey Medical Marijuana Program (“MMP”). The MMP authorizes approved physicians to disburse up to two ounces of medical marijuana to a registered patient during any 30-day period to treat numerous “debilitating medical conditions,” particularly where conventional treatments are ineffective or exacerbate a patient’s suffering. 

The Garden State’s medical marijuana program is one of the strictest in the country.

A physician must certify that a patient has an approved debilitating medical condition to participate in the New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Program. The current list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana includes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Multiple Sclerosis, terminal cancer, muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel disease, and any terminal illness. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was added as an approved condition in 2016. 

In July, the  New Jersey Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel (MMRP) recommended that the Commissioner of the Department of Public Health qualify dozens of additional debilitating conditions falling within the categories of chronic pain, migraine, anxiety, and Tourette’s Syndrome for inclusion in the State’s medicinal marijuana program. However, the Department of Public Health has yet to render a final decision.

Studies Find Cannabis Legalization Decreases Opioid Deaths

Research confirms that cannabis can be an effective pain management tool. Moreover, encouraging the prescription of medical marijuana can help curb opioid addiction. Unlike narcotic painkillers, cannabis can’t lead to a fatal overdose. The likelihood of addiction is also much lower.

A 2015 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the existence of medical marijuana dispensaries in a state was linked to a 15 to 35 percent decrease in admissions to substance abuse treatment centers. It further found a similar decline in overdose deaths.

In Colorado, legalizing recreational cannabis resulted in a decline in opioid overdose deaths. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, in the two years after Colorado implemented its recreational marijuana law, opioid deaths dropped by 6.5 percent. A 2014 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found similar results. The researchers estimated that prescription drug overdoses decrease 25 percent in states with medical marijuana programs that allow chronic pain patients to participate. Moreover, the effect of legalizing medical cannabis appeared to grow over time, meaning more lives were saved each additional year after the law was enacted.

While Gov. Chris Christie made the opioid crisis a top priority, he strongly opposed medical marijuana. With a change in leadership in the Garden State, it is more likely that cannabis may be considered as a viable solution to the growing health crisis of opioid overdoses.

This article is a part of a series pertaining to cannabis legalization in New Jersey and the United States at large. Prior articles in this series are below:

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Dan McKillop, at 201-806-3364.

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