Could Medicinal Cannabis Be the Solution for the Deadly Opioid Epidemic?

12th November 2020

Concern surrounding the large-scale use of opioid medications has continued to grow in recent years, as a number of negative implications become increasingly apparent. However, as access to medical cannabis continues to grow in some markets, many are wondering if it could be used as a safer alternative to opioids.

Official NHS numbers show that approximately one in four adults (11.5 million people) in England were prescribed potentially addictive medicines between 2017 and 2018. While the situation in the UK may not have been as fatal as in other countries, the high risk of addiction of these medications concerns both doctors and patients alike.

Despite opioid medications such as codeine, tramadol, and oxycodone being Schedule 2 Control Drugs in the UK, they are routinely prescribed for the management of conditions such as chronic pain. Chronic pain can be linked to a number of conditions, as well as be triggered by traumatic injury.

The Impact of the Opioid Crisis

In 2016, reports revealed that almost 28 million adults suffered from some type of chronic pain in the UK. Researchers concluded that this number would only be surging over the next few years due to the ageing population.

Professor Mike Barnes, Co-Founder of Maple Tree Consultancy, told Canex that some might not take the opioid crisis seriously enough.

He said: “Unfortunately, opioid addiction is far more complex and less forgiving than many people realise.

“Opioids can make your brain and body believe the drug is necessary for survival, but as your tolerance to the drugs grows, so does the danger of dependency.

“Due to their pharmacological effects, opioids can cause breathing difficulties, and opioid overdose can lead to death.”

He added it was estimated that, in the US alone, more than 38 million people suffered from drug use disorders in 2018, while the opioid epidemic kills around 17,000 people annually.

Some believe that ‘Big Pharma’ are partially responsible for these proceedings and resulting deaths. And there is evidence to support the conspiracy.

A few weeks ago, CNN reported that Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin, pleaded guilty to several federal charges, including its role in deepening the opioid crisis in the US.

It has been revealed that the pharmaceutical company paid doctors to increase prescriptions of the opioid-based medication while being aware of its high addiction rates.

Medical Cannabis vs Opioid Medications

While evidence remains under-developed, many experts argue that medicinal cannabis could be a highly effective substitute for opioid medications such as oxycontin, codeine, and morphine.

Professor Barnes agreed:

“Medicinal cannabis has emerged as a promising alternative pain reliever for those suffering from chronic pain.”

“Many countries now allow or are in advanced stages of considering medical cannabis to be widely available for clinicians to prescribe.

“An effective alternative to opioids in the management of chronic pain can help manage the crisis, and these pioneering countries (The Netherlands, Canada, Israel) prove medical cannabis is showing real potential towards this end.

“I think it’s only right that the industry takes medical cannabis seriously in this regard.”

While an increasing number of healthcare professionals, patients, and the general public continue to call for medical cannabis drug policy reform, the majority of prescribing doctors remain hesitant to embrace the drug.

Professor Barnes said: “Doctors have a responsibility to ensure their patients’ safety – and we should respect that – but they also have a responsibility to provide the best treatments available.

“Clinicians in the UK and several other nations have a lack of confidence around prescribing medical cannabis. There are several reasons for this, but mainly it is because the education and the long-term data they have access to need improvement.

“Of course, the political discourse surrounding cannabis needs to be addressed, as well. The clarity in the law and regulations would greatly aid the progression of the industry.”

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