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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now classifies opioid abuse and overdose as a legitimate epidemic. In 2013, there were more than 16,000 deaths due to opioid prescription abuse, which is a one percent increase from the year before. With statistics like these, medical professionals and patients are wondering if adding medical cannabis to the mix will exacerbate the situation.

A recent study suggests using medical cannabis in conjunction with traditional pain medications does not increase the risk for substance abuse. In fact, marijuana appeared to have no effect on addictive behaviors. In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 273 medical marijuana patients were examined. Sixty percent of these individuals stated they used both substances together within one month of the study.

Users of both substances did not have higher levels of alcohol consumption than patients who used one or the other. Furthermore, patients who used opioids exclusively to deal with pain reported higher levels of current pain and lower levels of physical function. Patients who use both substances for pain reported that cannabis was a more effective painkiller and allowed them a greater range of physical function throughout the day. This group also expressed a desire to eliminate or reduce their intake of medication. It is important to note that the majority of this subgroup admitted to some level of opioid misuse.

While it cannot be said that medical marijuana combats addictive behavior, it does not appear to encourage it. The study examined co-occurring substance abuse for intoxicants such as cocaine, amphetamines and sedatives. Between opioid nonusers and users, there was no difference in the rate of indulgence in these substances.

Brian Perron, the lead author of the study states,

“Physicians should be aware that medical marijuana is a potentially safer and more effective treatment approach than opioids.”

To that end, a 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that states allowing medical cannabis treatment for chronic pain had 25 percent fewer deaths related to opioid abuse.

New studies regarding medical cannabis are finding important information about the all-natural plant, but this is only the beginning. Scientists and researchers are calling for more data. At the moment, it appears that cannabis could someday become the pain medication of choice, effectively working in tandem with prescription opioids as a medical treatment.

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