The Opioid Epidemic Crisis

A fall-day-in-a-small-town

Part 1 of a Series

Read Time: 4:00 Mins.

Robert always considered himself to be a law-abiding, regular guy. To him, drug addicts were lazy, weak people, and most of them were downright criminals. If they overdosed, well, they shouldn’t have been using drugs in the first place. When he found his 24-year-old son in the bathroom unconscious and barely breathing, Robert’s entire world changed. Thank god the paramedics had some kind of prepared antidote. It saved his son from death by opioid overdose. Sitting uncomfortably in the waiting area of the county hospital emergency room, the past few hours brought jagged shards of panic and exposed raw emotions. His son. He’d raised him right, not to be weak, and there was no way he could be a criminal. How could this have happened?

In the last few years, opioid abuse has touched every segment of America; from wealthy gated communities to family farms, to small towns ravaged by chronic unemployment. What was once considered a law enforcement problem centered around urban minorities has now reached epidemic proportions across the nation. According to the National Institute of Health, commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone, fentanyl, buprenorphine, methadone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine. Opioid addiction is characterized by a powerful, compulsive urge to use opioid drugs, even when they are no longer required medically. Opioids have a high potential for causing addiction in some people, even when the medications are prescribed appropriately and taken as directed.

The statistics are staggering. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that in 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, illegal heroin, and fentanyl was 6 times higher than in 1999. Of the 70,200 reported drug overdose deaths in 2017, approximately 68 percent involved an opioid.


An Overnight Crisis 20 Years in the Making

A review of studies published by institutions such as The Mayo Clinic, the U.S Department of Health and Services, and the CDC provide answers on how this took place over time. Phase One began in the 1990s when physician guidelines changed and doctors took a different, more open approach to chronic pain management. The drug OxyContin was widely prescribed because it was marketed as a less dangerous, non-addictive opioid. Pharmaceutical companies also ramped up marketing, promotional, and lobbying campaigns to influence physicians, their patients, and government regulators about ways to treat pain with opioids. Nationwide, as opioid prescriptions rose, ethical lapses by some physicians, nurses, and pharmacies resulted in “Pill Mills” where opioids were purchased with little or no medical supervision. According to published media reports, if the Drug Enforcement Agency shut one down, another would pop up quickly in its place. The phrase “whack-a-mole” is commonly used to describe the situation, but it’s not a game as lives are on the line.

During Phase Two, heroin use rose dramatically. From 2010 to 2015, heroin overdose deaths tripled. Within the medical community, it’s commonly thought that Phase Three began in 2013 and continues to this day. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), from 2013 to 2016, deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl rose an astounding 540% nationwide.


Cannabis is an Answer to Decreasing Opioid Use

Many adults use medical cannabis to help with chronic pain among other medical conditions. This has the added benefit of reducing opioid reliance, and studies demonstrate that opioid prescriptions and corresponding potential abuse decrease in states that legalized medical marijuana for adults.

study published in 2014 by the Journal of American Medicine concluded that “…access to medical cannabis may change overdose mortality related to opioid analgesics in states that have enacted themMedical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates.” In a 2017 study published by the AJPH, “legalization of cannabis in Colorado was associated with short-term reductions in opioid-related deaths. As additional data become available, research should replicate these analyses in other states with legal recreational cannabis.” That conclusion turned out to be accurate. A May 2018 JAMA study also found that “Medical cannabis laws are associated with significant reductions in opioid prescribing in the Medicare Part D population. This finding was particularly strong in states that permit dispensaries.”

The actual numbers back this up. When a state instituted any medical cannabis law, Medicare Part D prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year. When medical cannabis dispensaries opened, prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.742 million daily doses per year.

Another 2018 JAMA study concluded that “medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to lower opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a high-risk population for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose, and marijuana liberalization may serve as a component of a comprehensive package to tackle the opioid epidemic.


Using Science to Ease the Stigma

The recent studies are especially important for those adults who seek legitimate scientific studies to alleviate their concerns about medical cannabis. The medical community, the government, and the media all acknowledge that the opioid epidemic is a national health threat which requires action on many levels. If you’re going to have a conversation with a loved one about cannabis and chronic pain, tell them that science supports using medical cannabis to help with chronic pain and reduce reliance on narcotic opioids.

If you or someone you love is in need of help with opioid addiction, seek professional medical advice and see how cannabis may be of the solution. It can be a matter of life and death.

Philip Rebentisch is a writer and the Content Editor for Three Wells.