PILL VS PLANT: One is taking lives, the other is giving it back
Most of us remember the commercials well. This is drugs, (butter melting in frying pan). This is your brain on drugs, (egg cracked into hot pan – sizzling). Any questions?
Yes. So many questions.
Here we are, decades later, and in the throes of one of the worst epidemics this country has ever seen. In fact, more American’s died of drug overdoses in 2016 then died throughout the entire Vietnam War. A staggering 116 people die each day in the U.S. from an opioid overdose.
The opioid epidemic is now considered to be the deadliest drug overdose crisis in American history, and it is the driving force behind drug overdoses now being the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.
What is an opioid?
Demerol. Codeine. OxyContin. Dilaudid. Percocet. Sublimaze. Morphine.
Opioids are psychoactive chemicals that occur naturally (in the resin of the poppy plant) or can be made in a laboratory. They work by binding to opioid receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract.
There are illegal opioids (like heroin) as well as legal opioids that are prescribed for pain relief (like hydrocodone, which has the brand name of Vicodin). In fact, there is a dangerous trend where people that have become addicted to prescription opioids begin using heroin because it’s cheaper to get.
It’s estimated that about a quarter of patients who are prescribed opioids misuse them in some way.
Why is it so addictive?
Opioid drugs bind to opioid receptors on cells in the brain and throughout the body. Some of those cells control a person’s digestion, pain, and other functions; your body already contains opioid chemicals, such as endorphins, which relieve pain and make you feel good during exercise. When opioid drugs attach to these receptors, they dull a person’s perception of pain even more. That’s why they can be so useful for people recovering from serious injuries or surgery.
But opioids also affect the brain’s reward (pleasure) system, which can make people feel euphoric (high). Some people take opioid medications just to feel that high. If you’re taking a prescription pain medicine to get high, you’re misusing it, and putting yourself at risk for addiction and other health problems.
How did this crisis start?
It began in the late 1990s, when doctors and health care providers started facing pressure to treat chronic pain more aggressively. Advocates began encouraging doctors to treat pain as a “fifth vital sign” and recommended the long-term use of opioids — such as OxyContin — for all chronic pain.
At the same time, pharmaceutical companies began marketing these drugs to medical providers as not addictive or harmful.
As a result, doctors began prescribing them at greater rates. According to the CDC, by 2015, enough pills were being prescribed to medicate every American around the clock for three straight weeks.
But opioids are highly addictive, and studies show that patients given longer-lasting prescriptions, such as a week or a month, were most likely to become addicted. Opioids increasingly were misused by the people they were prescribed to. Plus, about half of those who misused prescription opioids obtained the drugs from family and friends without a prescription, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
What can we do to reverse the trend?
Stop oversubscribing. Opioids are easy to prescribe, prescriptions easy to fill, and most people find their health insurance readily covers the costs. Clinical guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently been updated to reduce the number of opioids prescribed for the treatment of chronic pain.
Treat opioid addiction as a health issue. Addiction is a chronic medical condition, but it is often viewed as a moral failing and crime – a factor which can limit access to treatment.
State and federal prisons hold almost 300,000 people convicted for violating drug laws, with some states far more likely to imprison drug offenders than others.
While the national government imposes some of its own restrictions, it does allow state and local housing authorities leeway in how they apply rules concerning drug users.
Provide access to treatment. Only one in four people with an opioid addiction is treated for it, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Yet there is strong evidence that medication combined with therapy can reduce opioid addition.
Research over the years has shown that increasing access to medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone – withdrawal agents given under medical supervision to help wean people off opioids and heroin – have been shown to help addicts get through withdrawal, reduce relapse and overdose, and go on to live healthy, functional lives.
Using cannabis during the detox process helps patients through the severe muscular and bone pain, nausea, insomnia, drug cravings and underlying psychopathologies such as anxiety and PTSD that accompany withdrawal.
In a 2009 study published in Harm Reduction Journal, Amanda Reiman, an internationally recognized cannabis expert and public health researcher, concluded patients who substituted cannabis as a non-narcotic replacement for illicit drugs, prescription opiates, and alcohol were able to better manage their symptoms and experienced fewer adverse side effects.
Cannabis, the exit drug.
A recent University of Michigan study found patients using medical marijuana to control chronic pain reported a 64% reduction in their use of opioids. In states where medical cannabis has been legalized, opioid overdose deaths have decreased by 25%, according to research out of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
While this curative plant may not be the sole answer to the opioid epidemic, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that cannabis can be a viable alternative (or at minimum, supplementation) to opioids for pain management, as well as a natural alternative to lab-produced withdrawal agents which are accompanied by their own set of undesirable side-effects.
Cannabis may very well be the exit drug to a crisis that was grown in labs and perpetuated by physicians who asked very few questions of the drug manufacturers, and acted instead with a quick hand in issuing prescriptions.