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Can medical marijuana be curbing be opioid epidemic?

Posted by: Dr. Robin Barnett, January 18, 2017

Dr. Robin Barnett, EdD, LCSW, LCADC, CSAT

Some intriguing news stories have popped up lately.

“New study finds that medical marijuana may be helping to curb the opioid epidemic.” —The Washington Post

“Can medical marijuana help end the opioid epidemic?” —Time.com

“Opioid addiction being treated with medical marijuana in Massachusetts.” —Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

Clearly, there is a theme here. We know that the opioid epidemic is running rampant through our country, cutting an indiscriminate swath of addiction and overdose death wherever it goes. So finding any solution certainly perks up a lot of ears.

But marijuana? Isn’t that like trading one bad thing for another? Not necessarily, say researchers.

The study that sparked this conversation came out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and found that fatal car crashes involving opioid drugs decreased in states where medical marijuana was legal. Covering 18 states, the study revealed that the greatest reductions were seen in 21 to 40 year olds, which is also the demographic most likely to use medical marijuana when it’s available to them.

The theory goes that when medical marijuana is an option, people will turn to it for their pain relief over opioid prescription medications or illegal variations of the drug. As it turns out, the research bears that out.

Of course, medical marijuana still has its detractors who contend that the drug isn’t well regulated and it doesn’t have clinically proven medical benefits—and some just flat-out don’t like the idea of mainstreaming it.

Still.

In a place like Massachusetts, where opioid addiction reaches epidemic proportions, the possibility of moving people off opioid medications or illicit drugs for their pain and onto what many claim is a non-addicting substance like medical marijuana is an appealing possibility.

“[Dr. Gary] Witman, who works in a Massachusetts Canna Care clinic, has treated about 80 patients who were addicted to opioids, anti-anxiety medication or muscle relaxers with cannabis through a one-month tapering program. More than three-quarters of patients stopped taking the harder drugs…”

Other proponents of medical marijuana as pain reliever say that one barrier to better understanding of its efficacy and safety is the difficulty in obtaining funds to research it. Certainly fears of transferring addiction from one substance to another is a factor. But with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that in 2014, opioid painkillers killed nearly 19,000 people, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reporting zero marijuana overdose deaths, it’s an option increasing numbers of doctors would like to explore.

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Dr. Robin Barnett is a revered behavioral health expert, certified sex addiction expert and former CEO of Park Bench Group Counseling, a progressive addiction rehabilitation facility in Northfield, New Jersey, which she co-founded in 2006 and sold in 2014.

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