Think Twice Before Using Pot to Treat Opioid Addiction: Study Warns

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Photo by Cannabis Culture via Flickr

While medical marijuana has emerged as an alternative for the treatment of opioid abuse, its effect on public health needs more study before pot is widely used in palliative care, according to a forthcoming paper in the Kansas Law Review.

“Promoting marijuana over opioids is risky, given substantial uncertainties over short- and long-term impacts of its widespread use,” the paper warned.

“Even as the nation slowly exits the long tunnel of the opioid crisis, it may be heading into a fog of extensive, additional public health repercussions.”

The co-authors, James G. Hodge, Walter Johnson and Drew Hensley, observed that while opioids are effective “pain killers,” marijuana is more like a “pain distracter.”

Hodge is law professor at Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University (ASU). Johnson and Hensley are law students and legal researchers at ASU.

Last year, the White House issued a statement declaring opioid abuse a “public health emergency.” More than 300,000 Americans have died from overdoses involving opioids since 2000, and in 2016 alone, opioids killed more Americans than breast cancer.

But as local, state and federal officials work to lessen the impact of opioids, “public health interventions to curb opioids consequentially mean fewer patients are gaining regular access to opioids to control their pain,” said the paper.

The authors noted that some caregivers and substance abusers are turning to medical marijuana as an alternative form of care, since other treatments, such as ibuprofen or physical therapy, can be ineffective or prohibitively expensive.

Though as of September, 2018, medical marijuana was legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia (additional states approved medical marijuana in ballots during the midterm elections), the authors caution there is only a “thin proof of [its] efficacy for treating many conditions.”

The authors don’t dispute the benefits of medical marijuana for many patients in need.

But they note that although medical marijuana can be effective for patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and others, “the efficacy of marijuana as a palliative drug is not fully proven.”

Before medical providers exchange opioid prescriptions with medical marijuana prescriptions, the study argued the public needs more substantive research that balances its potential palliative effects against the public health and safety risks of long-term marijuana use.

The full study can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by Lauren Sonnenberg, a TCR news intern.

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