How Cannabis Could End a North American Epidemic

Credit: J0N0X0R/Deviantart

Yet another way in which medicinal cannabis could save lives: as a substitute for painkillers.

Opioid overdose has been described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a growing epidemic. And contrary to lingering stereotypes, death by overdose on opiates isn’t exclusive to recreational use of illicit substances. Victims include patients who gradually developed an addiction to prescription painkillers (the most popular of which include Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin) and either failed to follow proper instructions or resorted to illegal alternatives – namely heroin – once prescriptions had run dry.

With the prescriptions and sales of painkillers having almost quadrupled in number since 1999 in addition to existing prohibited drug use, it seems almost cause-and-effect logic that the FDA reported overdose deaths as today’s “leading cause of injury death in the Unites States – surpassing motor vehicle crashes.”

The most tragic part of this public health issue is that such casualties are entirely preventable.

Research has consistently revealed the following methods of prevention:

  • Improved prescription best practices: regulating overprescription and ensuring that patients understand the dangers of exceeding dosage and of mixing opiates with other substances, including alcohol and Valium.
  • Harm-reduction approach: sanctioning medically supervised injection sites (such as Vancouver’s Insite, the first legal facility of its kind in North America which was found by the Supreme Court of Canada “to save lives with no discernible negative impact”).
  • Emergency opioid antagonist use and training: the distribution and education among addicts of naloxone, a substance with a reported 89% success rate in the reversal of overdose, smaller than 1% rate of adverse reaction, lack of psychoactive effects, lack of abuse potential and “unforeseen benefits, such as reductions in personal drug use” – yet which largely remains unavailable.
  • Decriminalization of drug possession and use: bystanders, usually fellow illicit users, were reported to call 9-1-1 in only 23% of overdose cases – their reluctance significantly attributed to “fear of arrest and prior exposure to the police”.

In regards to prescription-related overdose, perhaps the most effective and practical method would be to prescribe an alternative to opiate painkillers, preventing patient addiction and misuse from the outset. One medical alternative is – wait for it – cannabis: a natural substance with analgesic, pain-relieving properties recognized since the second century AD in China.

A time-series study revealed that states legalizing the medicinal use of cannabis exhibited a “24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate”. Yet legalization remains a contentious issue.

The lack of government adoption of such fact-based provisions is not only disheartening – instilling a sense of repugnance towards the lengthy and at times backwards bureaucratic process as well as towards deeply rooted prohibitionist attitudes – but also cruel, standing idle in the face of so much empirical evidence, in the face of so many unnecessary deaths.

As citizens wait for evidence-based drug policies at the federal level, victims of opioid overdose may be added to the list of casualties of the war on drugs.

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