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Is Medical Marijuana a Safe Alternative to Traditional Medications?

September 6th, 2018 12:00am

Is Medical Marijuana a Safe Alternative to Traditional Medications?

Medical marijuana has been growing in popularity over the last several years. As of August 2018, 30 states including Arizona have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. Studies show it is effective in treating conditions such as chronic pain and multiple sclerosis, with some even suggesting it may be a way to fight the opioid epidemic the U.S. is grappling with. 

However, the federal government does not recognize marijuana’s medical potential and considers it a Schedule I drug – along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD – because of its high potential for abuse. So far, researchers have not conducted enough large-scale clinical trials to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of marijuana’s potential benefits.

Does Medical Marijuana Decrease Opioid Overdoses?

Nearly 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016. With media attention on the issue at an all-time high, many states are taking extra steps to try to prevent overdose deaths. For example, the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act provides funding for treatment, improves enforcement tools and extends life-saving resources to first responders.

While overdose reversal drugs, such as naloxone, are now widely used to block the effects of opioids, some believe medical marijuana could prevent or curtail opioid use in the first place. A National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded study shows that legal dispensaries lead to a decrease in:

  • Opioid prescriptions
  • Self-reports of opioid misuse
  • Treatment admissions for opioid addiction

However, some addiction treatment specialists are concerned that substituting one addictive drug for another may be harmful. They say cannabis dispensary staff are not adequately trained to handle customers with health conditions and may make recommendations that could hurt them.

Risks of Medical Marijuana

While cannabis has been shown to effectively treat pain without any evidence of overdose deaths, it does not come without risks, such as:

  • Respiratory issues in long-term smokers
  • Testicular cancer
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Development of schizophrenia and other psychoses
  • Learning impairment

Heavy marijuana use is also linked to cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), which causes vomiting and pain. The condition was once considered rare, but now an estimated 2.7 million Americans suffer from it. In addition to increased access to the drug, the greater frequency of serious marijuana side effects may also be linked to the higher potency of marijuana available today, compared to 20 years ago.

Is Medical Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

There is some evidence that suggests cannabis may be a gateway drug. A 2016 study found that adults who used marijuana were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder within three years than non-users. Marijuana use is also linked to nicotine addiction.

However, the majority of cannabis users, especially those using it for medical purposes, do not go on to use “harder” drugs. Other factors, such as a person’s social environment, may be more reliable indicators of their risk for drug use. If someone is surrounded by friends or family who use drugs, they are more likely to use as well.

Some research suggests that marijuana legalization can act as an anti-gateway. As with using medical cannabis instead of opioids to treat pain, some people may substitute alcohol use with legal pot use. If that were to be the effect, it could potentially have sweeping public health and safety effects – alcohol is linked to violent crimes, poisonings and deadly accidents, while marijuana is not.

Alternative to Medical Marijuana

While cannabis is considered as an alternative to prescription opioids to treat pain, it also carries risks that can make it harmful for many patients. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) could be a safer option for people addicted to opioids.

MAT combines the use of FDA-approved medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a whole patient approach to treating substance use disorders. People become addicted to opioids because they feel like they need to keep taking them to avoid withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea and aches. Medications like

methadone and buprenorphine can stop this cycle by negating a person’s cravings and preventing physical withdrawal symptoms.

Many studies have found that MAT can reduce the death rate among addiction patients by half or more. MAT’s medical value is widely recognized by public health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Experts sometimes call it the “gold standard” for opioid addiction care.

Treating Opioid Addiction in Scottsdale, AZ

While the jury is still out on whether medical marijuana is an effective alternative to opioids, there is plenty of evidence that MAT can help people safely and comfortably detox from these powerful painkillers. Recovia uses this proven treatment method to help our patients recover from their addiction. Call 480-712-4600 to learn more about our outpatient services or fill out an application online.



What is Medical Marijuana Used For?


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