Could Cannabis Quell Americans Addiction to Pain Meds?

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by Paul Armentano and Chris Goldstein

Millions of Americans are living in pain; so many, in fact, that doctors now prescribe enough painkillers in a single year to medicate every person in the nation.

According to a disturbing new study by the Associated Press, Americans in 2005 consumed over 90,000 kilograms of powerful narcotic painkillers – primarily codeine, hydrocodone, and morphine, but also meperidine (Demerol) and oxycodone. In many cases, these drugs can be habit-forming. In some cases, their use can be deadly. (According to a separate AP report, the number prescription-drug fatalities has tripled from 1998 to 2005, with oxycodone being one of the drugs most often linked to drug deaths.) But what if there was a safer, cheaper, and potentially more effective alternative available for pain management – one that greatly reduced the user’s risk of dependency, and one that was incapable of causing a lethal overdose? For a handful of Americans there is. That medicine is cannabis.

In twelve states, patients may now use cannabis therapeutically under state law. Many of these patients use cannabis for pain relief. Recent clinical trials show why. Most recently, investigators at San Francisco General Hospital and the University of California’s Pain Clinical Research Center assessed the efficacy of inhaled cannabis as a treatment for HIV-associated sensory neuropathy. (Neuropathic pain – colloquially known as ‘nerve pain’ – affects an estimated one percent of the world’s population and is typically unresponsive to both opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.) Researchers reported that patients who smoked low-grade cannabis three times daily experienced, on average, a 34 percent reduction in pain.

Previous studies assessing the use of cannabinoids as analgesics have demonstrated that they can also alleviate the neuropathy associated with multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, Canadian health regulators just approved the use of an oral cannabis spray for the treatment of cancer pain.

Survey data from numerous studies also indicates that medicinal pot users typically require fewer pharmaceutical drugs than their non-using counterparts. For example, in June investigators at Columbia University in New York reported that HIV patients who used cannabis therapeutically made fewer requests for over-the-counter medications, such as pain relievers and anti-nausea drugs, than subjects administered a placebo.

Evidence also demonstrates that cannabis has an adequate safety profile, particularly when compared to other pain medications. For instance, long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – such as ibuprofen and naproxen – is one of the leading causes of stomach ulcers and stomach bleeding, with some reports estimating that their use contributes to over 100,000 hospitalizations and 16,500 deaths annually in the United States.

The use of narcotic painkillers like oxycodone (OxyContin) to treat chronic pain also poses serious health risks – including death by overdose and addiction. Recently, a federal judge in Virginia ordered OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma L.P. and three of its executives to pay over $634 million in fines for misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction. By contrast, few users of cannabis – less than ten percent, according to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine – ever become dependent on the drug, and no human case of fatal overdose has ever been attributed to pot.

Finally, cannabis is far less expensive to the consumer than most prescription painkillers. For example, Americans spent $4.7 billion dollars on OxyContin between 2002 and 2004. By comparison, pain management with medical cannabis may cost patients as little as $40 per month – perhaps even less if they choose to grow their medicine at home. In states like California, many medical cannabis patients have the option to participate in locally sanctioned not-for-profit organizations, which provide patients’ access to medicine on a sliding scale based on what they can (or can’t) afford.

According to the American Chronic Pain Association, one in three Americans lives in persistent pain. For many of these people, pain relief is a wish and not reality. It’s time for Congress to grant these patients legal access to a non-toxic alternative that can help them alleviate their pain and suffering.

September 20, 2007

Paul Armentano [send him mail] is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC. Chris Goldstein is the producer of NORML’s daily podcast and the host of Active Voice Radio on KSFR/KSFQ in New Mexico.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Armentano

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One Response to “Could Cannabis Quell Americans Addiction to Pain Meds?”

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