Can Medical Marijuana Reduce Opioid Use?

From football players to those with MS, patients want lawmakers to consider the research on marijuana for pain management and use as an anti-inflammatory.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions veered off script last month in Richmond, Va., and called use of marijuana to solve the heroin crisis "stupid," he created a bit of an uproar from those that want to address the full opioid crisis, which includes use of medical marijuana to reduce addiction to prescription pain medications.

"I’m astonished to hear people suggest we can solve our heroin crisis -- have you heard this? -- by having more marijuana. I mean, how stupid is that! Give me a break! So we’re going to have to stand up and confront that, tell the truth here. And our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad, it will destroy your life," Sessions said.

Vox argued that with opioid abuse now being the number one cause of accidental death in the country, use of marijuana to treat chronic pain "certainly merits consideration by lawmakers who want to keep medical marijuana illegal at the federal and state levels."

The Drug Policy Alliance of New York (DPA) discussed in a paper its support for policy changes to enable the use of marijuana for patients that are at-risk of becoming opioid dependent. DPA's position is that use of medical marijuana in conjunction with opioids allows for much lower doses and reduced withdrawal symptoms from the addictive narcotic.

This position is supported by research published in the Journal of Pain in June 2016.

DPA, like many other medical marijuana supporters, cited a 2010 University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research study of double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that took place over a decade, and found inhaled marijuana as a successful first line treatment of neuropathy.

DPA also cited research published in 2012 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which found that inhaled marijuana was successful in reducing spasticity symptoms and pain in participants with multiple sclerosis, or MS.

In addition to pain management, for diseases like cancer, where many treatments create nausea, use of marijuana has been reported widely as helping patients to eat and obtain or maintain basic nutritional needs.

Late last year when Seantrel Henderson, a football player for the Buffalo Bills, faced a second suspension for violating the National Football League's (NFL) substance-abuse rules in choosing to use medical marijuana after colon removal surgery due to Crohn's Disease, American football lovers took note, according to The Cannabist.

Crohn's Disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects upwards of 700,000 people in the United States to varying degrees. In some people, it becomes active only occasionally as a "flare." In extreme cases, sections of intestine that could cause sepsis must be removed. Many with Crohn's Disease take steroid-based and others medications to control the advancement of the disease, which is believed to be exacerbated by stress and environmental factors.

A 2013 study in the Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology Journal found that "a short course (8 weeks) of THC-rich cannabis produced significant clinical, steroid-free benefits to 10 of 11 patients with active Crohn's Disease."

According to The Cannabist, ballers like Henderson are also looking to the cannabidiol, or CBD, in cannabis for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Football players want the NFL and NFL Players Association to reconsider use of medical marijuana for both pain management and its anti-inflammatory properties in its substance abuse policy, according to the pro-pot website.

“We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players. And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on," said George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs.

Henderson was ultimately suspended again, but is reportedly on the road back to playing next season.

However, not everyone fighting the opioid epidemic is on the medical marijuana bandwagon -- including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Massachusetts Representative Patrick Kennedy, two chief advisers of Advocates for Opioid Recovery, who spoke this week at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta.

While Advocates for Opioid Recovery has been slammed for its interests -- because it is funded by opioid manufacturer Braeburn Pharmaceuticals -- some drug rehab professionals are also not supportive of a pro-pot answer to opioid addiction.

"It's trading one dependency for another," an anonymous clinician told Gov1.

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