The United States is currently in the grip of an opioid abuse epidemic, labelled as “unparalleled” by the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The recently released interim report of this commission is sobering, especially as it called for the declaration of a national emergency. It stated, “Americans consume more opioids than any other country in the world. In fact, in 2015, the amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks.”
The statistics are staggering: “With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.” Deaths from opioid overdoses have overtaken those from car accidents and gun homicides combined. To put this into perspective, the population of the US America makes up under 5% of the global population but its citizens consume over 80% of the global supply of opioids.
Tapering off of opioids with cannabis
In my practice, one of my primary goals for every patient I see on prescription opioids is to help them taper off these drugs. The risk of overdosing, dependence, addiction and death attached to these medications is too high. In my pre-cannabis general neurology practice, any attempt to wean patients off their prescription opioids was met with anger, panic and confrontation. In stark contrast to this, in my current practice, many patients treated with medical cannabis are voluntarily reducing their opioid consumption. This is because cannabis works just as well for pain. This is well supported by research. In a recent survey of 1,750 patients co-treated with opioids and cannabis, 97% of patients reported being able to decrease their opiate dose. 82% of them reported that cannabis was more effective than opiates for pain.
Cannabis is a gateway drug
Cannabis has long been referred to as the gateway drug. While a ‘gateway’ may be used for access it may also be used as an exit. but in In present times, we know that the single biggest contributor to heroin addiction is legally prescribed pain killers like containing hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone like Vicodin and Percocet. They act on the brain in exactly the same way as heroin and morphine do and so the addiction potential is equivalent . Prescription painkillers and heroin share the dubious honor of being among the most addictive substances out there. When the FDA reclassified prescription opioids like Vicodin, making them hard to obtain legally, heroin filled the gap as it was cheaper and easier to get.
Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
Medical Cannabis seems, ironically, to be the gateway out of this circle of addiction. In the past, opioids were the only choice available to control pain after less powerful alternative pain medication failed. Today, 80% of heroin users say their addiction began with prescription opioids. What we now know is that physicians have an alternative for difficult to control pain. They also have a drug in cannabis that can be used to help their patients lower their doses of prescription opioids.
Dr. Michael Morgenstern is a double board certified neurologist, also certified to treat addiction. He treats patients with medical marijuana at Morgenstern Medical in Manhattan, New Hyde Park and Syosset, helping many of them to wean off of prescription opioids. He is the founder of the NY Medical Marijuana Association. He can be reached at [email protected]