Congress Blocks Medical Marijuana Research Meant to Lessen Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. House of Representatives denies two amendments to a bill designed to fight the rise in prescription painkiller addiction and overdoses in America.

The U.S. House Rules Committee took up a bill to create a task force to help fight the opioid epidemic by investigating best practices in pain management and prescribing pain medication. In the process, the committee killed off two amendments to the bill that focused on marijuana.

The first amendment, offered by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), would have required the task force, made up of a number of government agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to study the “potential for marijuana to serve as an alternative to opioids for pain management.”

The second amendment, authored by Jared Polis (D-CO), would have required the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to examine the differences between the “medical application of marijuana and opioids for pain management.” This would include a study of the opioid overdose rates between states with and without medical marijuana laws.

Rep. Polis, in discussing his amendment, said, “Medical marijuana is a possible and likely way to reduce opioid prescription painkiller abuse for chronic pain, and unfortunately it’s hardly been explored due to government policy, in large part because of the federal government’s monopoly on legal cultivation and studies.”

Polis also cited recent studies showing lower rates of prescription overdose deaths in states that have medical marijuana laws. The most notable of these studies was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and showed that on average painkiller overdose rates were almost 25% lower in medical marijuana states than in states where marijuana is still illegal.

The study’s lead author, Marcus Bachhuber, MD, wrote in the paper, “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws. Examination of the association between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in each year after implementation of the law showed that such laws were associated with a lower rate of overdose mortality that generally strengthened over time.”

That is because when medical marijuana is used as an adjunctive treatment with traditional painkillers, the need for opioids goes down. A study from the University of Michigan showed that patients using marijuana for chronic pain reported needing 64% fewer prescription pain medications. The patients in the study also reported fewer negative side effects from pain medications and 45% improvement in their quality of life. Cannabidiol (CBD), one of the compounds found in cannabis, is particularly useful in pharmacology for its analgesic (pain relieving) properties and lack of psychoactivity.

Despite the evidence that medical marijuana reform can effectively reduce the need for painkillers, arguably the source of the current opioid and heroin epidemics in this country, the committee ruled that both amendments were out of order and would therefore not be brought to the House floor for a vote. This result is woefully unsurprising, given that the U.S. House Rules Committee is chaired by and predominantly populated by the Republican party.

To learn more about the pain relieving properties of cannabis and CBD, visit our education page.