Should Cannabis replace dangerous and addictive opioids in medicine?

Should Cannabis replace dangerous and addictive opioids in medicine?

Patients across the world have been receiving prescriptions for opioid medications for some time now, and it has also been realised for some time that they are helpful but often problematic prescription drugs that do not always work and can put the person taking them at risk of developing further serious physical and mental health problems. The most common opioids currently used in medicine are Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, morphine and codeine. All of these medications are prescribed as pain relief and all of them have their own pros and cons.

One of the major reasons that opioids are used in medicine is their strong, painkilling properties. Dentists and doctors alike use the medicines when carrying out procedures, or for pain relief after a procedure, and doctors also prescribe them to patients with chronic illnesses or chronic pains. While it is true that they provide a certain amount of pain relief to the patient, it is also true that they make the patient drowsy and unable to function on a normal level. 

This is one of the major problems with such drugs. People with chronic pains, that are looking to make themselves more comfortable, but get on with their lives at the same time, are often unable to do so. The opioids frequently make it difficult for users to leave the house, never mind get in to a car or go to work. They can also make having cohesive conversations difficult, and this obviously decreases the patient’s quality of life. New York Times reporter Barry Meier is an expert on the subject, having published several books lambasting the medical use of opioids. He states that “These drugs have a very powerful impact on our production of sexual hormones – testosterone in men and estrogen in women. Lower hormone production is not just about growing hair or sexual performance; it’s about your entire energy level.”

These side effects are not the only problems that come with being prescribed opioids however. There are a vast array of other debilitating and sometimes painful effects including; nausea, vomiting, constipation and stomach cramps. These side effects are not only possibilities for users but they are all to frequently certainties.

So far all of this seems to cast a dim light over the use of opioids as painkillers, but believe it or not, that’s not even the worst of it. Opioids are also highly addictive and life threatening if taken in slightly larger than recommended quantities. In fact they are so addictive that many patients have been left hooked on the drugs even after they no longer need them. Many stories have been heard of people turning to street dealers, who obviously sell far inferior and more dangerous products, due to their prescriptions ending. Not only does this leave a recently sick patient in a vicious circle that is likely to make them ill again, but it also feeds and supports the organised crime gangs that sell the drugs on the street.

Over 16,000 people die in the USA per year at the hands of prescription opioids. Granted not all of them are patients, many of them simply drug addicts that are abusing the drug to get high, however a large portion of these people are patients and this is a worry for the nation’s doctors that are prescribing the drugs, and indeed the patients that are taking them. The cause of these deaths mainly comes down to the fact that users can very quickly build up a tolerance to the painkillers. This means that the pain relief that was initially being felt is no longer there. Quite often when this happens the pain actually feels even greater due to the desensitisation that has taken place, thanks to the extreme strength of the original pain relief.

The tolerance to the prescription drugs that the body builds up leaves patients taking higher doses in order to feel the same pain relief. More often than not they don’t realise the damage that this can do to the body, often leading to respiratory collapse and over working of the heart. Overdoses are common among patients and this is definitely one of the more serious, but common, issues that come with prescription opioids. So are there any alternatives to using these dangerous medications? 

At present one drug is making great strides in the pain relief arena, and that drug is medical cannabis. Since being recently decriminalised in Australia, Portugal and many states across the US, and made fully legal in Canada, many companies have been working hard at creating different types of medicines from the newly hailed “wonder plant”. After years of campaigning for the right to use the drug for medical reasons many are finally be able to get their hands on the drug that they feel will provide them with the help and comfort that they need and deserve. But will it?

According to scientists and doctors across the globe it will. The drug is being made into tinctures, a type of oil that is administered with food, and is already being prescribed to patients in many places that are suffering from illnesses that would previously have warranted opioid prescriptions. The benefit of using cannabis is that, while it does have some mild side effects, it lacks all of the severe and dangerous ones that come with opioid use. In fact tinctures won’t even get you high.

Nausea and vomiting are possible if one was to smoke too much of the drug, and cannabis can also effect a person’s motivation in some instances, however, and most importantly, it is not addictive and there has never been a recorded overdose from the drug. Building up a tolerance is also much harder and this makes it less likely that people will unintentionally abuse the drug.

Patients from around the world suffering from cancer, epilepsy and a range of chronic pains and aches are already experiencing the pain relief that cannabis can offer. They are also able to work, talk and generally function. This has lead doctors to begin prescribing the drug instead of the opioids that they have previously been recommending to their patients and that is a good sign for everyone. One of the major problems that is faced today is convincing everyone that cannabis can provide the pain relief that is needed, while getting those that are already hooked on opioids better at the same time.

Those that take the former are likely to suffer from extreme withdrawal symptoms when they try to come off the drug, including diarrhoea, sickness and fever, and this creates a hard task that doctors and their patients must work to get through. We must hope that the rest of the world opens their eyes to the option of medical marijuana and recommends it to those in pain, otherwise people will continue to go on needlessly damaging their bodies with the dangerous, addictive and often deadly opioids that we should work hard to make obsolete. 

Photo credit: MarihuanayMedicina via DesignHunt / CC BY-SA

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