Cannabis researcher believes using cannabis for the treatment of pain could help manage the United State’s opioid addiction epidemic.
The American opioid addiction crisis could possibly be solved with cannabis, says a renowned California professor and researcher. Dr. Daniele Piomelli, professor of neurobiology and anatomy at UC Irvine School of Medicine, has studied cannabis and its efficacy at managing pain for the past 25 years. He believes that using marijuana for the treatment of acute and chronic pain, rather than the traditionally prescribed opiates, could curtail the addiction and prescription drug abuse crisis that, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, is killing 44 Americans everyday.
Prescription opioid pain medications, including Vicodin, Codeine and OxyContin, act on the nervous system to effectively reduce pain but carry a high risk for abuse, addiction and overdose. Over time, patients will find they need to increase their dose of opioid pain medicine to get the same level of relief. Prolonged or overuse of opiates can lead to addiction or dependence, as well as withdrawal symptoms once the drug is no longer taken.
Research has found the two major cannabinoids in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), are safer and also extremely effective at lower pain. Last month a study from the University of Georgia found that states with medical marijuana laws in place saw a significant drop in the number of pain medication prescriptions compared to states without legalized medical marijuana. Dr. Piomelli believes prescribing cannabis to chronic pain patients will reduce the amount of opioids they must take to curtail pain.
“By using a combination of the opioids and the cannabinoids, one can really lower the doses of both quite substantially,” Piomelli told LA Weekly. “By lowering the doses, you of course decrease the risk of addiction and the risk of side effects from both classes of compounds.”
Currently, 25 states have passed medical marijuana legislation. Federally, however, cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) just recently announced its refusal to reschedule the substance, which means the logistical and legal obstacles that hinder the study of cannabis’ therapeutic properties remain.
“Despite what the DEA says, their scheduling creates an enormous difficulty to researchers using marijuana or its derivatives.” Piomelli said. “Even harmless derivatives that happen to be present in the plant have been subjected to the same limitations as marijuana.”
In spite of the obstacles, the decades of research that have been done show that THC and CBD produce undeniable pain-relieving effects through their influence on the body’s endocannabinoid system.
“The major cause of the delay we have is decades of misunderstanding, misconception and misinformation on cannabis that only now, after 20 years of work on the endocannabinoid system, we are finally starting to dispel,” Piomelli said.
The endocannabinoid system, discovered in the early 1990’s, consists of receptor sites, enzymes and endocannabinoids that are responsible for regulating homeostasis. Cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, interact with the receptor sites to help regulate multiple properties of the body, including pain sensation.
Piomelli says he’s encouraged by the recent marijuana-related studies and the overall shift in interest as cannabis as a viable and safer treatment method for pain. Last year, researchers urged physicians to recommend cannabis to their chronic pain patients rather than opioids in an editorial piece published in the Journal of the Canadian Public Health Association.
“This is one of the times I’ve felt the most hopeful in my life,” said Piomelli. “Things aren’t going to change immediately, but I think over the next five years we’re going to see some fundamental shifts.”
Nine states have cannabis-related initiatives on this November’s ballot. By the end of the year, the U.S. could have nine states with adult use laws and 29 states with medical marijuana legislation.