medical marijuana

Open Source: Could Medical Marijuana Help Address the Opioid Epidemic?

Experts weigh in.

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Studies indicate that medical cannabis may be an effective alternative to opioids for managing pain. Increasing therapeutic use of cannabis could be one effective element of a prevention strategy that reduces patient reliance on prescription opioids. However, containing the opioid crisis requires a comprehensive strategy focused on people who are already addicted, increasing access to medications like methadone and buprenorphine and educating people about how to prevent overdose with naloxone.  

Brendan Saloner, PhD, is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. 

The relationship between recreational and medical marijuana and opioids is not clear cut, but there’s an enormous interest in it because of the number of lives at stake. There’s some suggestive evidence that marijuana may help to reduce opioid use. There’s also some evidence to the contrary. This is an issue where we have to stay true to the science to address important unanswered questions. 

Caleb Alexander, MD, MS, is an associate professor in Epidemiology and founding co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at the Bloomberg School.

While I am in favor of expanding access to medical cannabis … through our health care system, under the supervision of a doctor, I do not believe that doing so will substantially impact the opioid epidemic at this stage. Most people substituting cannabis for opioids are not using either drug medicinally. Moreover, research does not suggest that cannabis is a substitute for heroin or fentanyl, the major drivers of the epidemic today.

Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, PhD, is director of the Bing Center for Health Economics and co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation

I don’t really believe that it will help or hurt the opioid addiction epidemic. I don’t believe that we’re overprescribing opioids because we’re lacking [pain treatment] alternatives. Those who say we have a lot of people suffering with chronic pain, that we need other options and it should be cannabis … it’s not true. We’re underprescribing treatments that already exist that are safer and more effective. 

Andrew Kolodny, MD, is co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis

There have been suggestions that medical marijuana legislation may be associated with fewer opioid prescriptions. However, at a policymaking level, it is counterintuitive to advocate for the legalization of marijuana while our nation is struggling with an opioid use disorder epidemic. While medical use of marijuana may be beneficial in some cases, I do not think that it is reasonable to promote marijuana as a positive medical treatment.

Mark Parrino, MPA, is president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence