In January 2019, the shocking news came out from the National Security Council in the USA that US citizens were more likely to die from an opioid overdose than from a car accident for the first time ever. This is a shocking statistic that goes to outline the extent of the opioid crisis which is currently hitting the US.
The term ‘opioids’ covers both illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, but also some prescription painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. They all work on pain in a similar way and are highly addictive.
What are opioids and how do they work?
Opioids can be divided into two groups – legal and illegal. Whilst illegal opioids such as heroin might sound drastically different to ‘legal’ opioids, they still work in the same way, and both can be extremely addictive.
In the body, there is a set of receptors called opioid receptors. These are found all over the body, but especially in the spinal cord, brain nerve cells and in the gut. When you take an opioid, it attaches itself to these receptors, which then block pain messages from being sent to the brain. This results in very effective pain relief but can also be very addictive – especially if they are used over the long term.
If you are taking opioids, it is also likely that over time you will need to increase the dosage that you are taking to get the same pain relieving effect. Over time, your body becomes reliant on these opioids and it starts to believe that it needs them to be able to function properly.
Opioids can have a number of side effects, including nausea, constipation and sleepiness. However, what is much more dangerous is the fact that an overdose of opioids can result in shallow breathing, a slowing down of the heart rate, unconsciousness and, eventually can even result in death.
Opioids are strong drugs and not something which should be taken lightly, and the statistics are staggering. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, over 2 million people have an opioid misuse disorder and they estimated that in 2017 and 2018 over 130 people per day died from opioid-related drug overdoses. 
The opioid epidemic – the consequences
Regardless of whether it is through illegal drugs or prescription drugs, the consequences of the opioid epidemic are far-flung, Not only is there a massive economic burden – resulting from the cost of healthcare, to lack of productivity, but also the personal cost, social impact and even the tragic rise of newborn babies suffering withdrawal symptoms at birth.
Whilst most people would never start taking an opioid expecting to wind up addicted to them, this is something that is very common. And, although it is arguable that those that turn to illegal drugs make a ‘conscious’ decision to take them, it seems unforgivable that medication prescribed by a doctor could have such as profound effect on people’s lives, enabling them to almost be sleepwalking into a potentially life-threatening situation.
Medical marijuana – the solution?
It is unfortunate that the reasons why people turn to opioids in the first place aren’t going to disappear any time soon. For those who take illegal drugs such as heroin, this is a very complex issue and their drug use very often comes as a result of psychological issues. Until these are dealt with it is unlikely that a solution can be found.
However, for those who begin using prescribed opioids for pain relief – whether it is an injury, chronic pain or to help deal with cancer treatment, there is maybe some hope. There will always be people who need strong pain relief, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t get it from somewhere other than these opioids.
Some sort of medication which could relieve pain but not threaten those patients with addiction and overdose could just be the answer. And this is where medical marijuana could be part of the solution.
What is medical marijuana?
For many people, when they hear the word ‘marijuana’, they automatically think of illicit drugs – and probably ones which aren’t much better than heroin or another addictive opioid. However, this couldn’t be further from the reality.
Within the cannabis plant is a range of compounds, amongst which, the two most prominent – and best understood are CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). Whilst THC is the compound – or cannabinoid – which makes you high, CBD doesn’t at all.
There is still a lot more research that needs to be carried out, but it is widely accepted that these cannabinoids can help to relieve pain when taken by humans. 
The endocannabinoid system in the human body is the system which is responsible for regulating a number of bodily functions including the central nervous system and pain. It revolves around the interaction between cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids (or endogenous cannabinoids – cannabinoids which are produced naturally by the human body). There are concentrations of cannabinoid receptors in various places in the body, including the spinal cord and brain two areas which are in integral to the processing of pain.
Scientists believe that by taking Phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids make in plants like cannabis) the body can manage pain better, offering relief but without the problems which are associated with opioids.
Taking medical marijuana for pain
Depending on whereabouts you are in the world, the laws about taking cannabis-derived products are different. In the US, CBD derived from hemp is legal to take in all states, whereas THC is not legal everywhere. Although CBD can be effective to give pain relief, it is often made more effective with the addition of some THC. It is important, therefore that you find out what the laws are in your area with regards to legal THC levels.
CBD is a completely natural substance which has no long term negative side effects, you cannot overdose and is totally safe to use. Although CBD and THC are non-addictive in theory, it is important to remember that anything which gives much-needed pain relief can be difficult to leave. Much in the same way as chocolate.
With the opioid crisis in the USA in the state that it is in at the moment, it is clear to see why there is so much hope being put at the feet of the cannabis plant and its compounds – most prominently, CBD and THC.
With massive pharmaceutical companies benefiting financially from the enormous number of people who are dependent on these opioids, conspiracy theorists out there might believe that this is the biggest obstacle that is in the way for people who want to find alternative ways to help them to deal with their pain.
However, there still needs to be a lot more medical research to be carried out to understand the full extent of what medical marijuana, CBD and THC can do for people who are suffering from chronic pain – and who are currently using potentially life-threatening opioids out of sheer necessity.
Whilst the ideal would be to be able to tackle the root causes of the pain which many people are suffering, this is not a short term solution. By offering an alternative to these dangerous opioids, we can begin to help people to avoid these risks, give them a better quality of life, and, ultimately, save lives.