Cannabis May be Safer than Opioids for Managing Pain

For centuries, opium was used recreationally and to relieve pain. Modern-day opioids, prescribed to treat all kinds of chronic pain, are synthetic chemicals made to mimic natural opium. And yes, they can control pain, but do so at a steep cost. These opioid drugs are highly addictive, easily abused and can be deadly. While opioid use, dependency and deaths are increasing across the country, states that have legalized medical marijuana are seeing declines in all three areas.


What Are Opioids?

The majority of opioids are Schedule 2 narcotics—other than heroin, which is Schedule 1. This means they have "a high potential for abuse." Examples of opioids are:

  • codeine
  • hydrocodone
  • morphine
  • fentanyl
  • methadone

Opioid side effects include:

  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • constipation
  • sedation
  • physical dependence and tolerance
  • depressed respiration

Withdrawal symptoms are similar to the side effects, only they’re more severe and debilitating. This makes it difficult for people to quit using opioids once they start.

Opioid Prescriptions & Abuse Skyrocket

In the late 1990s, the federal government removed some of the restrictions on opioid use in treating chronic pain. Between 1999 and 2014, the sale of prescription opioids almost quadrupled. Today, the most prescribed medicine in the United States is an opioid— hydrocodone.
Abuse of opioids is also on the rise. In 2008, 6.2 million Americans (12 and older) used prescription drugs for recreational purposes, and the rate of non-medical use of prescription pain relievers was 4.6% among young adults. Hospitalizations for opioid use rose more than 150% from 19932012. And in 2007, around 27,000 people died from accidental drug overdoses. And since 2003, more overdose deaths are a result of opioid use than from heroin and cocaine combined. The statistics paint a grim picture. But that’s where medicinal cannabis comes in.

Cannabis Is Safer Than Opioids

About the same time that opioid restrictions were eased, some states began legalizing medical marijuana for treating pain. A 2014 study found that states with medical marijuana laws had a 24.8% lower rate of opioid deaths than states without legal medical marijuana. The study also found that opioid deaths decreased each year following medical cannabis legalization.


Cannabis does have side effects, but most are mild. Its use has been associated with:

  • mood changes
  • memory loss
  • anxiety
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

However, addiction is uncommon, and deaths are rare with marijuana use.

Further studies are needed to explore the relationship between opioids and medical marijuana, but early findings show that cannabis may do more than reduce pain. It may save lives.

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If you’re new to cannabis and want to learn more, take a look at our Cannabis 101 post. HelloMD can help you get your medical marijuana recommendation; it’s easy, private and 100% online.


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