The United States is in a opioid crisis. Across the nation, rural communities and cities alike are teeming with people who are using drugs, like heroin and Oxycontin, at rates that are alarming to medical health professionals everywhere. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
An easy remedy to the problem doesn’t exist, but one of the solutions being focused on by many lately is the idea of loosening medical marijuana restrictions so people with conditions who may be treatable using cannabis aren’t treated using opioids. Much of the opioids being abused are from black markets, but 80 percent of people who end up abusing drugs, like heroin, start with prescription drugs.
A new report from Castlight Health looks at the rates of opioid abuse among people who use their employer’s health insurance. They analyzed data from the medical and prescription claims reports of nearly 1 million Americans and found some disturbing results.
According to the report, baby boomers are nearly four times more likely to abuse opioids than millennials. Furthermore, people in low-income environments are nearly twice as likely as people in high-income areas to abuse these drugs. But what about marijuana?
Chris Whaley, a data scientist at Castlight, told Cannabis Now that the study wasn’t meant to focus on medical marijuana, so he can’t say they’ve discovered a clear cause and effect, but there appears to be a correlation between states that have medical marijuana available and lower rates of opioid abuse.
“The correlation that we found is that approximately 5.4 percent of individuals with an opiate prescription [who abuse the drug] live in states that don’t allow medical marijuana,” Whaley said. “Whereas 2.8 percent of individuals with an opioid prescription live in states that don’t allow medical marijuana would be classified as abusers.” If that’s the case, that’s almost a 50 percent reduction. That might seem like it’s anecdotal, but there have been several studies that have found similar results.
A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine focused on the correlation between medical marijuana laws and lower rates of opioid abuse. Researchers found states that allowed medical marijuana had a roughly 25 percent lower opioid overdose mortality rate.
Whaley is excited by the idea of specifically researching a correlation between medical marijuana and opioid abuse, and he is interested in doing a study solely focusing on that. He said beyond medical marijuana, there are other ways opioid abuse could be reduced.
“There are many things that are correlated with opioid abuse, so addressing many of these underlying health issues we think would be important,” Whaley said. He pointed to lower back pain, arthritis and mental health issues as ailments often treated with opioids. If the ailment can be addressed and fixed, less opioids would be prescribed.
Considering there isn’t a single case of someone dying from overdosing on cannabis, it would seem logical that it could be a smart replacement for drugs that are highly addictive and extremely dangerous in larger doses. The longer we wait to find out if that’s the case, the more people will die taking drugs their doctor told them they needed.
Have you or anyone you know made the switch from opiates to medical marijuana? We’d like to hear your story.