Both marijuana and opioids are considered to be Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substance Act, which means both are considered deadly and dangerous drugs. 29 states have legalized medical marijuana today, which has had an effect on the traditional drug used to treat pain and other symptoms: opioids. But the two drugs share another similarity: both have been used to treat symptoms of pain, symptoms caused by chemotherapy treatments, chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, other inflammation and damage, among other ailments.
While opioids are traditionally used to treat pain, marijuana can also assist in the treatment of mental illnesses, such as epilepsy, anxiety and PTSD, as well as insomnia, whereas opioid medications are not used in behavioral health. For cancer patients, marijuana can assist in easing nausea and vomiting, and relief for pain caused by chemotherapy treatments. But it’s not always possible to get medical marijuana, even while its side effects do not share the same severity of opioids and have demonstrated benefit.
As a medication, marijuana has not contributed to the factors that have created a full-blown opioid epidemic in the United States. In the last 25 years, the amount of opioid prescriptions in the United States has increased exponentially. Opioid medications are often prescribed for pain, but they’re also addictive. 80 percent of heroin users once had an opioid prescription, and opioid overdose led to over 30,000 deaths in 2015. The population of the United might make up 5% of the world’s population, but uses 80 percent of the world’s quantity of opioids.
The effects for marijuana and opioids are different, in strength and risk factors: where marijuana may cause dependence, opioid medications can go further and cause addiction. Where opioid medication can cause liver and brain damage and overdose, marijuana might cause anxiety and disorientation, but never overdose.
When studied, states with marijuana legislation show that states with legal medical marijuana have less hospitalizations due to opioid abuse or overdose: one study revealed that death due to overdose in those states was 25 percent less.
If marijuana was not considered a Schedule I drug, it might be possible to study the drug further and uncover just how much it can benefit those with chronic illnesses. But as long as it’s on the same legislative level as heroin, it won’t be possible to really understand the efficacy of the drug, or its significant effect on the opioid epidemic.
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