People who use medical marijuana on top of powerful opiate medications are no more likely to get hooked on those or other drugs, a new study finds.
The results should make it easier for doctors to prescribe both opiate painkillers and medical cannabis to patients with chronic pain. Many physicians and patients are turning to marijuana as an effective, safe pain medication and an alternative to opiates.
These powerful opium-based analgesics, though sometimes necessary, are hugely potent and highly addictive, and they can easily turn lethal. Physicians are increasingly looking for other choices in treating severe and chronic pain. Marijuana has proved to be highly effective as an alternative pain reliever, whether alone or in combination with opiates.
Are combinations of drugs more addictive?
But there has never been much information about how weed interacts with other drugs, including opiates and their synthetic counterparts, opioids. Among other concerns, doctors worried the addition or substitution of cannabis might increase the risk patients could become addicted to substances such as alcohol, hard drugs, and other prescription medications.
The new study was published in the May issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a publication that focuses on substance abuse and addiction. Researchers found that combining opiates and medical marijuana does not make patients more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs.
The scientists examined 273 patients who were already taking medical marijuana. The study was conducted at a clinic in Michigan. More than 60 percent of the participants admitted to using both weed and opiates.
Taking opiates does not making pot more addictive
As a whole, the 273 patients did have a higher rate of substance abuse compared to the general population. But there was no difference between the patients who used only medical marijuana and those who used both opiates and pot. That suggests the combination of the two types of drugs is no more hazardous than using opiates alone.
Other recent studies suggest marijuana may be more than an effective painkiller: It may also give addicts and substance abusers a safer drug of choice. A landmark report released in 2013 found that states where weed is legal have fewer traffic fatalities because the drug acts as a substitute for people who would otherwise drink and drive.
The same may be true of opiates and other powerful drugs of abuse. The medical community is increasingly turning to drugs such as Suboxone and methadone that keep addicts safe rather than pushing them through 12-step programs that frequently don’t work. Marijuana may ultimately serve the same purpose.
Opiate-related overdoses lower in states with MMJ
Another study, published last year in JAMA’s Internal Medicine journal, showed that opiate-related overdose deaths were 25 percent lower in states where patients with pain could use medical marijuana. That survey reviewed data from 1999 and 2000.
The team behind the new study hopes to conduct a longitudinal study examining whether the same type of patients develop substance abuse issues over a two-year period.
“The resulting data will inform the debate surrounding medical marijuana use and could help shape strategies to identify and intervene with individuals at risk for problems related to substance abuse,” the scientists wrote in their grant proposal.