Opioids by JD Shepherd
In 1990, the word of the year was Bushlips. Not a flattering term, it was a reference to President HW Bush’s reneging of the promise of “no new taxes!” That same year I sat in a DARE class, led by a Gainesville city police officer, and learned all about the dangers of cocaine, crystal meth, LSD, mushrooms and of course marijuana. Were they just filling my head with false claims like “no new taxes,” or were there legitimate dangers to these mind-altering drugs?
As it turns out, at least when it came to marijuana, they were false claims. Where at one-time marijuana was lumped in with hard drugs, today the public knows far more about the relative risks of cannabis use than we were led to believe in the 80’s and 90’s. Yesterday’s DARE approach claiming marijuana was as harmful as opioids and other drugs, rings hollow today.
Today we face a serious problem, with overdose deaths accounting for the loss of 64,000 people each year according to the latest statistics. While not as devastating as some of the very worst in U.S. history, the overdose epidemic brought on by abuse of opioids and opiates reaches well into epidemic numbers our nation saw with diseases such as polio, diphtheria, and typhoid fever.
Of all the drugs leading to overdose, naturally and artificially produced drugs based on opium, including natural opioids and the lab-created opiates, account for nearly 60% of all the drug-induced deaths, more than heroin and meth combined. I included methadone in that figure because, while it can help people get off opioids and opiates, it is also part of that same family of drugs, and its use can also lead to overdose deaths.1
Looking back at that 8th grade DARE class, I do not recall any mention of opioids. But I do remember the scary darkness that marijuana was going to lead me into. Addiction, loss, prison and death would surely follow that first joint. But of course, it didn’t, and it hasn’t for millions of Americans. In fact, nearly 50% of all adults in the U.S. have tried marijuana at some point in their lives.
Yet the government has spent well over $20B each year in a vain effort to incarcerate marijuana out of existence, and comparatively little educating the public on the clear dangers of abusing prescription opiates.4
Some think that disconnect – talking up the harms of cannabis while minimizing the risk of opioids, comes from a cozy relationship between the FDA and the patent medicine industry.6 The revolving door of lobbyists, a system that rewards large pharmaceutical companies interested in profit, has led many to believe the system is rigged in favor of large drug companies. Indeed, pharmaceuticals make up a multi-billion-dollar industry annually, and recent studies have suggested that when medical cannabis is available, fewer people die from these other drugs. It’s time to have an honest conversation about the source of harm and what the alternatives are. Are we really being told the truth when so much money fuels the prescription drug industry?
What we want is for citizens to get the information and resources they need, and for those citizens to decide for themselves — along with their physician — what the best solution might be. We should be thinking about the patient, not the pharmaceutical company.
Research has shown that medical cannabis can be an effective and safer solution for managing pain than opium-based drugs. It has already helped stem the tide of deaths following use of these harmful prescription drugs.8 And unlike opioids and opiates (and even caffeine and nicotine), the addiction potential of cannabis is very low. And did you know that the overdose rate for marijuana use is actually zero?1
I didn’t know better when I was sitting in that DARE class in high school, but I do now, and I’m done believing the misinformation. Whether its “no new taxes” or “just say no,” its time from some honesty from our government.
Compassionate SC is working tirelessly in the State of South Carolina, fighting for patients’ right to choose a more rational treatment. My Health, My Decision! Would you join us?
8 A recent study found a 48% reduction in patients’ opioid use after three months of medical marijuana treatment. Staci A. Gruber, et al. “Splendor in the Grass? A Pilot Study Assessing the Impact of Medical Marijuana on Executive Function,” Front. Pharmacol., 13 Oct. 2016, Vol. 7. A survey of 542 patients using cannabis in addition to opioids found that 39% reduced their opioid dosage and another 39% stopped using opioids altogether. The Cannabis and Opioid Survey, Healer.com 4 October 2016. Health Affairs reported that doctors in a state where marijuana was legal prescribed an average of 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers per year to patients enrolled in Medicare Part D — which resulted in significant cost savings. Ashley C. Bradford et al. “Medical Marijuana Laws Reduce Prescription Medication Use In Medicare Part D,” Health Aff. July 2016, Vol. 35 no. 7. Scientists have found that when cannabis is used in combination with prescription opioids, it increases their pain-relieving properties, so patients can reduce their dosage and get the same effect. Abrams, Donald et al. “Cannabinoid-Opioid interaction in chronic pain,” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, vol.90, no. 6 (2011). Researchers at Columbia University’s School of Public Health found that, in states that passed medical marijuana laws, fewer drivers killed in car crashes tested positive for opioids after the laws went into effect. June H. Kim, et al., “State Medical Marijuana Laws and the Prevalence of Opioids Detected Among Fatally Injured Drivers,” Am. J. of Pub. Health, Nov. 2016, Vol. 106 no.11.
JD Shepherd is a husband and father of 2 teens, a Community Chaplain, Christian Minister, and a Nutrition and Cannabis advocate. He is a veteran who suffers from lifelong chronic migraines and combat-related PTSD.