The benefits of medical cannabis extend to many areas… and now threaten some very large campaign contributors, namely manufacturers of opioids, benzodiazepines and alcohol.
An early warning sign was the the 2014 survey by the National Pain Foundation that asked over 1,300 fibromyalgia patients to rate the effectiveness of the three FDA approved drugs. They also asked about medical marijuana.
The results were not encouraging for Big Pharma.
Although the FDA approved fibromyalgia drugs generate huge sales for Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Forest Laboratories, more than half the patients who tried their drugs found them totally worthless.... no help at all. In contrast, more than 50 percent of the patients who tried cannabis found it "very effective".
Another 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that opioid overdoses and deaths declined an average of 25 percent in states that had instituted medical cannabis programs. In addition, the longer medical cannabis was legal, the stronger the impact on reducing opioid overdose deaths. It was suggested that patients might be substituting cannabis for the opioid pain medication.
Jump ahead to this year, and the question is answered.
A study published this April in the International Journal of Drug Policy finds 63 percent of medical cannabis users substituted cannabis for prescription drugs, mostly opioids and anxiety medication, and 25 percent had cut drinking alcohol.
Then in May, a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology revealed over 75 percent of regular opioids users cut their dose once they started cannabis. Seventy-two percent decreased the use of anti-anxiety medication, 65 percent cut back on sleep medication, and 42 percent reduced their use of alcohol.
This was followed by a September article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine explaining patients with chronic medical conditions used medical cannabis as an alternative to prescription medications, or used it to wean off their prescription meds for pain.
Now, a study just published in the American Journal of Public Health shows what happens to opioid deaths after recreational (non-medical) cannabis was allowed for all adults of the state of Colorado.
Researchers looked at the 14 year trend prior to the law that regulates cannabis like alcohol.
During those 14 years there was a big increase in opioid-related deaths in Colorado. But following the approval of recreational cannabis, there was a 6.5 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths.
Although researchers can't definitively say legal access to cannabis for all adults caused the decline in opioid-related deaths, they did control for factors that might have influenced the results.
Since patients in a medical cannabis program cut their use of opioids, it's no shock that adults with access to recreational cannabis do the same.
It should also come as no surprise that some of the largest contributors to defeat recreational cannabis initiatives are the pharmaceutical and alcohol lobbies.
As an example, in 2010 the California Beer and Beverage Distributors was one of the primary backers of the lobby group Public Safety First, sponsors of the No on Prop. 19 campaign which would have allowed adult non-medical use of cannabis.
(Their concern is understandable. About one in four Americans are now spending their money on marijuana instead of beer, new research from Cannabiz Consumer Group found. Twenty-seven percent of beer consumers are legally purchasing cannabis instead of beer, or suggested they would purchase it instead if it were legalized in their state.)
And in 2016 Insys Therapeutics donated $500,000 to defeat the campaign to legalize cannabis for adults in Arizona.
Although alcohol clearly results in more damage to public health and safety then cannabis, opponents of cannabis regulation continue making unfounded assertions.
Some of these were addressed on 10/23/17 week when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed the Chief Medical Officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health.
CBC: What have you seen since recreational cannabis has been legal in Colorado?
Dr. Larry Wolk: “The short answer is we have not seen much. We have not experienced any significant issue as a result of legalization. I think a lot of people think when you legalize you are going from zero to some high-use number, but they forget that even when marijuana is not legal, one in four adults and one in five kids are probably using on a somewhat regular basis. What we’ve found since legalization is that those numbers haven’t really changed.”
CBC: Do we know if cannabis legalization is leading to higher uses of hard drugs?
Dr. Larry Wolk: “We are not seeing those kinds of increases."
CBC: What about drugged driving?
Dr. Larry Wolk: “We have actually seen an overall decrease in DUI’s since legalization. So, the short answer is: There has been no increase since the legalization of marijuana here."
Hopefully, our Tennessee legislators will consider this information when casting their votes on the upcoming medical cannabis legislation.
Matthew Hine, M.D., M.P.H.