Opioid addiction kills nearly 40,000 Americans a year, and solutions to the crisis have become a pressing health issue for both medical officials and lawmakers across the country. With medical marijuana being an accepted and legal treatment for various ailments in more than half the U.S., some health professionals are arguing hard to add cannabis to the list of possible solutions to the opioid epidemic.
Per a CNN report, the state of Maine has one of the highest death rates related to opioid addiction. Over a four-year period from 2012 to 2016, the number of fatal overdoses increased 400 percent, a rate much faster than the national average.
Maine is also one of the many states with legal medical marijuana, and some experts feel the plant could help stem the rising tide of overdose deaths. Dr. Dustin Sulak, a Maine physician nationally recognized as a medical cannabis expert, has helped hundreds beat an addiction to opioids with pot.
"There's no pill, there's no spray, no drop, no puff [that] can completely solve this problem," Dr. Sulak told CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "But cannabis, when it's used in the right way, can take a big bite out of it."
Dr. Sulak got the idea of using medical marijuana to treat opioid addicts from his patients. He found out that many of his patients were using prescription painkillers while also smoking pot.
Unlike most people who take prescription opioids, Dr. Sulak realized that these particular patients did not feel a need to increase the dosage of painkillers as time went on. He then turned to recent medical literature and confirmed his suspicion. Dr. Sulak found various studies to support the idea that marijuana actually enhances the effectiveness of painkillers, which explains why his patients did not need more and more pills as time went on.
University of California pain management specialist Dr. Mark Wallace discovered similar results with his patients. After reviewing decades of research related to the use of cannabis as a pain reliever, he began using the plant with his patients. Wallace sincerely believes he has saved hundreds of patients from opioid addiction by recommending medical marijuana.
Despite the growing consensus of some doctors and countless patient success stories, many still are not convinced medical marijuana is the answer to the opioid crisis in America. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, says more evidence is needed before it can definitely be said the plant will fix the drug overdose epidemic.
"We cannot be guided by wishful thinking. We need objective data," Dr. Volkow told CNN.
For now, marijuana remains an illegal substance under federal law. Until that changes, much of the research needed to study cannabis for potential medical benefits properly is limited to just a few government-approved labs in the U.S. As politicians slowly decide the fate of marijuana legality, many people have already turned to the plant for pain treatment instead of risking addiction to prescription opioids.