We’ve all heard a thousand times over how cannabis is so much better than opioids, and how weed is so much safer than prescription painkillers, and etc etc etc – unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, this is an old argument.
But what’s the basis behind the argument? What scientific support does it have?
Imagine this scenario: you are out socializing with some friends, and your group gets talking about the advantages of marijuana over opioid painkillers. Naturally, you are 100% pro cannabis – you’re arguing vehemently how weed is so much safer than opioids, and how if we could only replace prescription meds with cannabis, we could eliminate the opioid epidemic in a matter of months. Right?
Well, this argument is all well and good, but what’s your proof? When that perpetually negative, cynical friend asks the inevitable questions of how and why, what is your response going to be?
In this article, we will tell you exactly what your response should be — through the words and research of Washington University’s Dr. Adie Poe.
Marijuana and Opioids: An Unlikely Connection
Dr. Poe is a researcher based out of St. Louis’ Washington University – for over a decade, her studies have focused on the unlikely connections between opioids and cannabinoids. We say unlikely because, to most people, weed and prescription painkillers (i.e. codeine, oxycodone, etc) are two very different things that ought not to be spoken of in the same sentence.
However, Dr. Poe doesn’t particularly see it like that. In a May 2017 interview* with The Potlander, the young scientist speaks of how she noticed an odd correlation between weed use and heroin addiction while shadowing a substance abuse counselor as a college student in Vancouver, British Columbia. Every single one of the counselor’s patients was a heroin addict, but the unusual thing – to Poe at least – was that every single one of them was also a frequent cannabis user.
She wondered what the obvious connection between weed and opioids was, but more importantly, she wondered how marijuana might be affecting the patients on a physical, emotional, and psychological level: “I thought, what’s going on here? What is the interaction? What’s happening inside [their] brains?”
As it turns out, these initial curiosities would end up driving her future research goals, and would shed some light on why it’s true that cannabis is the best weapon in the fight against opioid addiction.
Opioid Use: It All Comes Down to Pain
On a molecular level, opioids are painkillers – very, very, very strong painkillers. People take them (and abuse them) because they take their pain away and they make them feel good – it’s as simple as that.
The major problem, of course, is that the euphoric feelings that opioids provide are highly addictive – when a user gets accustomed to having their pain taken away, it becomes very very difficult instinctually to NOT have that pain taken away. In other words, once a person starts using opioids, it becomes increasingly hard to STOP using them.
Of course, this results in the dangerous consequences of addiction, tolerance, and reliance. Tolerance, of course, is the simple fact that the more opioids you take – or the more frequently you take them – the more you are going to want (and need) to take them. And the more you take them, naturally, the greater chance you have of overdosing on them. As of 2016, it is estimated that 116 people die every day as a result of opioid-related drug overdose. Dr. Poe’s research and observations, though, are proving how cannabis is actively reducing these statistics.
How Cannabis is Saving the Lives of Opioid Addicts
What’s ironic about Poe’s observations is that they are incredibly simple. Most people, when they ask for an explanation on why or how weed can help get rid of the opioid epidemic, would expect some sort of scientific, complicated explication on how cannabis works molecularly to counteract the functions of opiates. Really, though, it’s not that complicated.
When asked how she knows that cannabinoids have a positive effect on opioid users, Dr. Poe’s answer is refreshingly straightforward: “We know by looking at states that have passed medicinal cannabis laws. When they instate those laws, there is, on average, a 25 percent drop in opioid overdoses. Clearly there’s some sort of beneficial effect of cannabis. It’s literally keeping people alive.”
So there’s the answer to your pessimistic friend’s question about how weed is beneficial to prescription drug addicts: it is literally saving their lives at a rate of about 1 in 4.
Of course, now Dr. Poe is wanting to know WHY weed is saving their lives. The statistics have clearly shown that marijuana is accounting for fewer painkiller overdose deaths, but now she is setting out to figure out why.
One of the key reasons, she believes, is that cannabis decreases the development of opioid tolerance – which ultimately leads to users not having to take as large a dose of the drug in order to find pain relief. And when users don’t take as large a dose of the drug, not as many are going to overdose on it or die from it. Simply put, she says “…it is because of this prevention in dose escalation [that people are having] their pain relieving needs met by cannabis, and therefore they don’t need to turn to opioids.”
Currently, Dr. Poe is continuing her investigations through a research organization she started called Habu Health, which is a cannabis research group committed to “providing personalized cannabis recommendations based on scientific rigor.” She is one of the few medical marijuana-oriented research scientists who receives grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and naturally, one of her central hypotheses revolves around the idea that “by using [cannabinoids and opioids] in conjunction, you can actually get better pain relief, not have this dose escalation, and not develop all of this dependence and propensity for abuse and overdose. [And] that’s the ultimate goal, to keep people alive.”