- In 2019, over 70,000 Americans died from drug-related overdoses.
- Pill culture has led to an overprescribing of opioids, with doctors and big pharma creating generations of addicts and overdose-related deaths from legally prescribed pills, contributing to the opioid crisis our country battles today.
- Even short-term use of opioids can lead to addiction and have detrimental side-effects. Alternative chronic pain management solutions and cannabis medicine should be explored before dolling out harmful opioid prescriptions.
- Cannabis remains a Schedule I drug despite zero deaths ever reported due to cannabis use alone and emerging research suggesting a host of medicinal benefits.
For over 20 years, America has been fighting an opioid crisis, and the drugs are winning. In 2019, over 70,000 Americans died from drug-related overdoses. Though 2020 numbers aren’t out yet, from June 2019 to May 2020, 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred, marking the highest number of overdoses over 12 months ever recorded.
Drug overdose death rates in the U.S. have nearly quadrupled since 1999, involving legally prescribed pain management opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone, and illicit drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and deadly fentanyl. These drugs are all highly addictive, and the related increasing addiction and death rates are known as the opioid crisis.
There is more to the opioid crisis than the alarming overdose death rates. An estimated 2 million Americans struggle with a substance use disorder involving prescription opioids, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (A.S.A.M.) reports, which can have short and long-term negative impacts on overall health and wellbeing and a detrimental effect on our society as a whole.
Hydrocodone products are the most commonly prescribed drugs in America, according to Consumer Reports. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (N.I.D.A.) says that America consumes practically 100 percent of the world’s hydrocodone. Why has this gone unchecked for so long, and how did it happen?
How Pill Culture Lead to the Opioid Crisis
I’m an old millennial, an 80s baby, and grew up in the aftermath of President Nixon’s War on Drugs and during President Reagan’s Just Say No era. I’ll never forget the D.A.R.E. program warning of the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use and McGruff encouraging me to “Take a Bite Out Of Crime” and stay away from drugs and “pushers.” I still can’t fry an egg without thinking, “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs.” If you know, then you know.
As a result, my generation was inundated to be fearful of illicit drugs, and many of us swore we’d never use them. We’d avoid those evil “pushers” and keep our brains uncracked and unfried. But what if the drug pusher isn’t a scary stranger in a back alley, but your doctor or parent? What if the drug that sets you on a path of addiction isn’t something illegal you’ve been warned to avoid ad nauseum, but instead, a little pill meant to help you?
Enter Ritalin and Adderall, found in classrooms across America promising to calm unruly or distracted children. These drugs helped establish the precedent for an entire generation to not think twice about using legally prescribed pills to cope with emotions, behaviors, and life in general. When you have a culture of people accustomed to popping pills, coupled with pain management strategies long reliant on addictive painkillers, the stage is set for the opioid crisis we are dealing with today.
The Path To Addiction
Most addicts didn’t wake up one day and decide to become addicts. They were created. Many of those addicts were made by doctors, prescribing legal painkillers to treat this or that along the way. I remember a time circa the late 90’s to early 2000’s (interesting when you consider that timeframe marked the beginning of 20+ years of huge jumps year over year in opioid-related overdoses, isn’t it?) when prescriptions of hydrocodone or Valium were relatively easy to come by and refill.
Here’s an example: It’s 1997, and a high school athlete suffers a sports-related injury resulting in a surgery-2-week prescription of hydrocodone with one refill, along with physical therapy. No big deal, right? Knee heals, physical pain stops, so after a month of using their legally obtained prescription, they stop using it, right? Maybe. But maybe they enjoyed the way the drug made them feel or how it changed their perception of pain and emotional reaction to it. Now what?
Ritalin normalized pill-popping for an entire generation of kids. Adderall made it worse. Have an ailment? Take a pill. Wisdom teeth out? Take a week’s worth of painkillers and hope you don’t get addicted. Prescription pills are easy to abuse, and in case you’ve never taken one, they can also give euphoria feelings that certain people prone to addiction may chase until it kills them.
Years of prescribing opioid painkillers to a vast number of people to treat a variety of conditions have created a lot of collateral damage. Enter cannabis medicine. But wait! That’s weed, man, McGruff and Mr. Mackey said it’s bad, m’kay! In the 1980s and 90s, McGruff didn’t know pharmaceutical companies and pain management doctors would create generations of addicts. If he did, he might have had a different message entirely.
Cannabis as an Alternative to Prescription Opioids
Since 1999, there have been over 750,000 deaths due to drug overdose. Guess how many of those deaths were due to cannabis? Zero. None. Nada. According to the CDC, there has never been a death reported solely from cannabis use. Ever. Yet federal prohibition of cannabis continues while more Americans die every month from an opioid overdose, alcohol-related diseases or accidents, and other legally obtained or illicit drugs.
Cannabis remains a federal DEA Schedule I controlled substance, defined as “…drugs, substances, or chemicals with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The company cannabis keeps in this class include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (L.S.D.), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote. One of these things is not like the other.
Schedule II controlled substances are also considered highly dangerous and include hydrocodone (Vicodin), cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin. They are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Taken directly from the DEA’s drug scheduling page, “…scheduling depends upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential. The abuse rate is a determinant factor in the drug’s scheduling; for example, Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence. As the drug schedule changes– Schedule II, Schedule III, etc., so does the abuse potential.”
You’re telling me that marijuana is considered more dangerous and addictive than fentanyl? Reform is necessary and could be an essential step in utilizing cannabis to defeat the opioid crisis.
The initial passage of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (the MORE Act) and the Medical Marijuana Research Act (M.M.J. Research Act) is a step in the right direction. However, it could be years before cannabis medicines and recreational marijuana is normalized, let alone accepted as a way to treat chronic pain, opioid use disorder, anxiety, and a host of other conditions. Further research is needed, but until cannabis is completely decriminalized, progress will be slow and minimal.
Why, then, if our government acknowledges we have a major opioid crisis on our hands and vows to do something about it, are doctors and pain management strategies not more fully embracing cannabis alternatives?
According to MedPage Today, although medical cannabis has been suggested to treat chronic pain, too many providers do not utilize it because there have not been accepted dosing and administration guidelines.
In an interview they conducted with Alan Bell, MD, of the University of Toronto and member of a 20-clinician Global Task Force on Dosing and Administration of Medical Cannabis in Chronic Pain, says, “We as a task force believe it’s extremely important to bring [medical cannabis] to patients,” and cited their recommendations are timely due to limited clinician knowledge around medical cannabis treatment and the ever-increasing opioid crisis.
Why This Matters
Americans continue to die at increasing rates from drug-related overdoses, many of those stemming from legally prescribed opioids and benzos. Our government and healthcare industry are not doing enough to prevent opioid dependence before it begins, while cannabis-a comparatively safer drug with emerging research suggests it to be effective in pain management and helping opioid addicts get and stay clean-continues to be federally prohibited.
For those physically dependent and suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD), quitting abruptly can lead to opioid withdrawal syndrome, which can be life-threatening. When attempting detox without assistance, the painful and dangerous side effects often lead to relapse to alleviate the symptoms. This can create a vicious cycle of dependence, abuse, and chronic relapse.
Medication-assisted treatment (M.A.T.) for OUD helps significantly. Still, it can be hard to come by even via prescription (ironic, yes?). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.), without M.A.T., the chances of relapse for a person who suffers from OUD are significant. This is one reason why medicinal cannabis as a part of a detox and recovery plan could be beneficial.
How many more addicts will our healthcare system create before our government takes more proactive steps to stop it? Why, when a naturally grown plant like cannabis with zero EVER reported deaths is available and could be used to more safely treat chronic pain and other conditions, do doctors continue to prescribe potentially life-threatening opioids to non-terminal patients when these drugs have very little proven long-term effectiveness in resolving the pain-related issues in the first place?
If your doctor prescribes to you or a loved one an opioid to treat non-terminal pain-related conditions, please search for an alternative method first. Vote yes for cannabis reform and educate yourself on its potential benefits in treating chronic pain, epilepsy, anxiety, P.T.S.D., and opioid use disorder, so the stigma and prohibition around it can finally give way to recovery and healing.
If you suffer from drug addiction or dependency, please get help: no shame, no blame, just healing, and recovery. You’re worth it.
Samantha DeTurk is a health and science writer for ThinkCivics. Sam graduated cum laude from BSU with a major in Theatre and a minor in Telecommunications and spent her first 5 years post-grad working in the radio industry before joining corporate America as a business consultant for a Fortune 300 HCM leader. When she’s not writing or cooking delicious WFPB cuisine, Sam loves singing, acting, spending time at the lake with her husband and ornery kitty Jasper, and (badly) learning to play her ukulele, The UkuBaby.