Can Medical Marijuana Help Prevent Opioid Overdoses?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Will the continued legalization of medical marijuana result in fewer painkiller overdose deaths in the United States? Is the risk worth the reward?

We asked Pro Talk authors to share their take on the debate.

Frederick Rotgers, Psy.D.
The answer to this question in my view is, “probably yes.” The people who mostly use cannabis medicinally are, I suspect, a different, but slightly overlapping group from those who use opioids “recreationally” as opposed to medicinally to treat chronic pain (the main reason most people get prescriptions for medical cannabis). The vast majority of opioid overdoses seem to occur in the former, so-called “recreational” users (many of whom, of course, suffer from an opioid use disorder).

If making medical marijuana available helps pain patients switch from the relatively higher mortality risk medication of opioids to the zero mortality risk associated with medical cannabis, then it seems logical to predict that there will be a decline in opioid overdoses (at least numerically, if not percentage-wise). So, I believe the risk of providing medical cannabis for chronic and other pain is far less than that of prescribing opioids, and so, yes, the risk is very much worth it. In fact, I can think of no real risk involved.

Read more from Pro Talk author Frederick Rotgers.
Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S
Side Note PictureI doubt that legalized medical marijuana will affect prescription drug overdose rates any more than legalized alcohol does (which is not at all, unless it raises those rates via toxic interaction). Furthermore, I find the “medical” marijuana concept a bit ridiculous. Consider the fact that the FDA subjects all drugs (prescription and OTC) to rigorous scrutiny, approving them only when:
  • They are standardized by identity, purity, and potency
  • They have regimented directions for use
  • They have clinically proven risk/benefit profiles

As of now, marijuana scores zero out of three in the FDA approval test. In reality, all we’ve got as proof of marijuana’s medical efficacy is anecdotal evidence suggesting it can be used to alleviate various medical symptoms, with equal anecdotal evidence suggesting the drug is either ineffective or contraindicated. So prescribing medical marijuana is akin to prescribing medicinal shots of whiskey—except we’ve got a much better handle on the potency and effects of alcohol. (Have you been to a medical marijuana dispensary? Usually the drug is available in various non-standardized forms—everything from joints to cookies—and the basic directions for use are “keep taking it until you feel better.” (That’s like telling Ambien users to pop pills until they’re no longer awake!)

Rather than hoping for a reduction in prescription drug overdoses, we should be hoping that the faux legalization of marijuana (and let’s not kid ourselves that the “medicalization” of marijuana serves any other purpose) doesn’t lead to a drastic increase in addiction. Sure, proponents of marijuana argue that it’s not addictive, but as an addiction treatment professional I sincerely doubt that claim. After all, marijuana has pleasurable and escapist effects—just like nicotine, alcohol, illicit drugs, and various prescription drugs—which means it’s potentially addictive. Anybody who doesn’t believe me might want to sit in on a meeting of Marijuana Anonymous.

That said, “medicinal marijuana” has been legal in most of California for the better part of two years, and so far the dire consequences have been… none. If anything, I’d rather have a client “get high” than “get drunk,” as alcohol is far worse for nearly every organ in the body. Perhaps even more importantly, drunk people get in fights, hit their spouses, and occasionally pull out guns—none of which are typical actions for a marijuana smoker. Potheads would rather play video games and snack.

Read more from Pro Talk author Robert Weiss.

Image Sources:
By ElementsBehavioralHealth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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