A growing number of patients in the US are turning to marijuana as an alternative to prescription pain killers. The CDC has officially declared prescription drug abuse in the US to be an epidemic, with overdose resulting in more than 44 deaths each day. That’s 17,000 deaths per year- and the number continues to rise. Deaths caused by prescription drug overdose outnumber deaths caused by heroin and cocaine combined. People all over the country are beginning to wonder if marijuana is a safer option. Researchers are well aware of the benefits offered by the naturally occurring plant and fear their chemical-based drugs will be replaced with the healthier, more holistic option. Skeptics might remain unsure of cannabis’ potential, but scientists aren’t.
To date, we still have no recorded deaths related to marijuana overdose- ever. In fact, marijuana legalization may be responsible for a 25% decrease in opiate- related deaths in the 23 states that have passed medical cannabis laws so far. That’s a 25% reduction in deaths caused by pain pills, heroin, and morphine. Prescription painkillers also carry a number of adverse side effects which can cause long-term health problems in some patients. The most common side effect of opioid painkillers is chronic constipation, which has been shown to increase the risk of colon cancer and benign neoplasm (a type of slow-growing tumor).
“Common side effects of opioid administration include sedation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, physical dependence, tolerance, and respiratory depression. Physical dependence and addiction are clinical concerns that may prevent proper prescribing and in turn inadequate pain management. Less common side effects may include delayed gastric emptying, hyperalgesia, immunologic and hormonal dysfunction, muscle rigidity, and myoclonus.”
The myth that prescription drugs are safer than marijuana is completely false. Both marijuana and prescription painkillers have potential psychoactive side effects, but the long-term effects of marijuana use appear to be far safer and not at all life-threatening. One study indicates that patients addicted to opiates could experience decreased brain function. Some forms of marijuana, such as cannabidiol (CBD), appear to have no effect on cognitive function at all. For patients suffering from chronic pain, cannabis could offer relief without the negative symptoms of long-term opiate use.
Prescription opiates are derived from the same source as other drugs, such as heroin and morphine. They are highly addictive and frequently abused by teens- 54.2% of pain pills in the US are obtained free from a friend or relative. Many politicians who claim that marijuana is a gateway drug need to consider the reality that opioid painkillers are worse. US citizens make up 5% of the world’s population and consume 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.
Marijuana and opioids prevent pain in different ways. Opioids straight up block pain signals in your brain. Let’s say you accidentally cut yourself. Nerves around the site of the injury send signals to your brain telling it that part of your body has been hurt. Once your brain receives these signals, it releases certain chemicals that effectively notify you that you’ve been hurt. This is what it means to feel pain.
When you take a prescription opioid, it blocks the neurotransmitters in your brain that inform you that you’re hurt. This takes your pain away by preventing you from feeling it. This is why opioids work so well post-surgery.
The pain-blocking mechanisms of marijuana are less understood. For starters, components in cannabis work with the endocannabinoid system AND the opioid system. The endocannabinoid system interacts with parts of the opioid system, but taking prescription opioids does not engage the endocannabinoid system in the way that consuming marijuana does. According to recent research, this may enable compounds in marijuana to:
- Reduce inflammation that causes pain all over your body
- Trigger the release of feel-good endorphins
- Reduce the buildup of fluids at injury sites
- Block pain signals in the brain in a similar manner to opioids
- Act as a muscle relaxer by opening up tense blood vessels
- Inhibit neuropathic pain
Very simply explained, marijuana and opioids do similar things in the brain when it comes to blocking pain signals and making you feel good. But, cannabinoids like CBN, CBC, and THC also work systemically to reduce inflammation and help relax damaged tissues throughout the body.