The Role of Medical Marijuana in the Opioid Epidemic

On May 17, 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state to allow the use of medical cannabis for opioid use disorder. This is a major step for Pennsylvanians everywhere. First, it gives doctors another option in the ever-growing war against the opioid crisis. Second, and perhaps most importantly, by adding addiction to the list of state-approved medical conditions, research is now allowed to be conducted in the state. Eight universities have been given permission to conduct research on this topic so far.

There has been strong evidence that medical marijuana can help fight the opioid crisis. In one study, it was determined that in states that offer medical marijuana programs, there are nearly 25% fewer deaths related to opioid overdose. In many cases, patients in medical programs find that they prefer cannabis to opioids, due to lack of withdrawal, fewer side effects, and easier symptom management. This shows that cannabis is an effective medication and is already being used by many as a replacement medication. By allowing prescribers to first choose medical marijuana over opioids, the chance of addiction drastically falls.

Medical marijuana can also help those suffering from opioid-use disorder. One phytocannabinoid thought to have an anti-addiction effect is cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is the non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant, generally the second most populated cannabinoid, and has little to no potential for abuse. When administered, CBD decreases stress, anxiety, and the addiction potential of other drugs. In animal-based trials, researchers found that CBD successfully inhibited drug-seeking behavior, even for longer than two weeks after administration for some. When administered during active intake, CBD was found to inhibit relapse behavior. The neurobiological mechanisms behind this method of action are still being studied. In addition, CBD is extremely beneficial for symptoms of withdrawal, including wet shakes, abdominal pain and cramping, and ptosis. Research is currently being conducted to determine if CBD can help correct the reward pathway for patients with opioid-use disorder.

Although there is mounting evidence to show the helpful role medical cannabis can play for those suffering from opioid-use disorder, more research will paint a more conclusive picture. Low THC to high CBD is currently viewed as the preferred dose, but it is important to note that a more targeted treatment plan is very likely to develop.  




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