As of 2014, 23 U.S. states have said “yes” to medical marijuana, and Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania are currently undecided. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington have flat-out legalized the drug within their borders. Yet marijuana use remains illegal on the federal level, and the plant is listed as a Schedule I substance.
Note that cocaine, a far more dangerous drug, is listed as Schedule II. With this listing, it is legal nationwide for doctors to use the drug in certain medical procedures. Specifically, the cocaine is used in certain sinus and nose surgeries. When cocaine and marijuana were evaluated back in the ’70s, the U.S. government knew that some doctors used it as an anesthetic. At the time, no one used marijuana medicinally—or at the very least, the medical profession did not recognize its use. Fast forward to today, and people around the world are using marijuana to treat chronic pain, insomnia, glaucoma and many other maladies. Researchers have also noticed another trend, this one much more disturbing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, collectively one of the leading researchers of disease in the world, recently reported that around 10,000 men and almost 7,000 women overdosed on prescription painkillers in 2010. Even more disturbing, death in women from prescription painkillers has increased 400 fold since 1999. The increase in male deaths over the same period stands at 265 percent.
According to the paper Medical Cannabis Laws and Optoid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States by Marcus A. Bachuber, however, these statistics are not constant across the U.S. In fact, states that have enacted medical marijuana programs show a statistically significant divergence from the national average. All told, these states experienced 25 percent fewer painkiller related deaths between 1999 and 2010.
The paper cites Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin as the deadliest opiates. The question that researchers like Marcus Bachuber and the folks at the CDC are asking is this: could marijuana be safer than prescription painkillers overall? Unfortunately, there is not much raw data available from which to draw a conclusion. Research on marijuana’s positive health benefits is hard to come across in the U.S., and the government seems hopelessly self-divided on the matter. The Drug Enforcement Agency, in particular, has been extremely aggressive toward any attempts to treat marijuana as a viable medicine.
Dr. Bachuber points out that many glaucoma, migraine and fibromyalgia patients are using cannabis as a replacement for prescription painkillers in states with medical marijuana programs. Bachuber believes these individuals may prefer marijuana because they perceive it to be more natural than brand name painkillers. Additionally, marijuana can be ingested in many different ways.
Finally, marijuana stimulates the pleasure center of the brain in much the same way as opiates do. It’s entirely possible that once prescription painkiller users try weed, they get the pain relief they need without the side effects. Here is a laundry list of those side effects: high risk of addiction, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness and drowsiness. Time will tell whether the U.S. government will acknowledge the fact that many Americans prefer marijuana to stronger, more habit-forming alternatives.