Our November election offered good news for marijuana. Several states, including California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts, voted to legalize recreational marijuana, joining Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington State. Many more states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes- although the qualifying conditions vary by state. A total of 26 states, plus the District of Columbia, have approved this use and these states have been helpful for studying the effects of marijuana on patients as a group.
Overall the studies show that marijuana legalization decreases the deaths from opioid overdoses. Scientific American wrote a great article summarizing the recent studies on marijuana and opioid use. Marijuana (cannabinoids are the names of the chemical group) has been shown to decrease dependence on prescription opioid pills like Percocet and oxycontin and is a pathway for people to get off the dangerous drugs. As people become accustomed to an opiate, they require a higher dose for the same effect. Since these substances can be lethal, the dose required to relieve pain can near the lethal dose and lead to death. In 2014, 14,000 people died from unintentional overdose of prescribed opiates. Guess how many people died in 2014 from marijuana overdose? Zero, and that’s according to the DEA. Marijuana use does not lead to overdose and it is far less addictive than opiates or even alcohol or cigarettes. This is why so many states have passed legislation to legalize it. The hold up, in terms of wider use of cannabinoids in medicine, is with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) which still classifies it as a drug with no medical use. With the Class I status it is difficult to procure the substance in order perform clinical trials. Since the pharmaceutical companies don’t stand to profit from marijuana there is no financial incentive for funding studies or money for lobbying the DEA. Currently, it is easiest to look backwards at data and plainly see how different symptoms or behaviors changed, how many fewer opioids were prescribed, and how many fewer people died when medical marijuana was available to patients. We are also starting to see the benefits of cannabinoids in treating not just pain or nausea, but also in helping with mental health issues as well, such as PTSD and depression. The use of cannabinoids for pain is so widespread now that the NFL is about to consider allowing their players to use cannabinoids for pain as so many ex-players have found relief from its use and have cut their opiate use.
Here in the District of Columbia, the use of medical marijuana is legal, as well as the recreational use by private citizens if it is not sold. Let’s hope the federal government allows states to keep the laws here in DC and across the nation. Let them also see the wisdom in correcting the DEA classification so that bigger studies can be performed and we can incorporate cannabinoids into everyday evidence-based practice.