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  • Jennifer Betz

Can Medical Marijuana be a Solution to the Opioid Crisis in Virginia?

Ending the opioid crisis in Virginia: Medical marijuana for chronic pain

Virginia is tackling the opioid crisis head on, but the we may be overlooking one important element of the solution: An alternative option for pain management.

In Virginia, the number of deaths related to opioid abuse has more than tripled since 2017, and overdoses have been the top cause of unnatural deaths since 2013. As we search for answers to one of the most complicated issues we face in the Commonwealth, some are looking at medical marijuana as one element that could help turn the tide on the epidemic that was both exacerbated and drowned out by COVID.

Early research indicates that medical marijuana could reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings for people seeking treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD). If added to the official list of drugs approved for medication assisted therapies (MAT), it would accompany methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine as legitimate treatment options.

In addition to cannabis having potential therapeutic benefit in treating addictions, it is also recognized by the state of Virginia as an effective treatment for chronic pain—one of the most common qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.

Virginia is leading the nation in addressing the opioid crisis, directing funding that comes as a result of the mountain of lawsuits filed against drug companies for the role they played in the proliferation of opioid addictions, through the passage of Attorney General Mark Herring’s legislation HB 2322.

The American Medical Association has commended Virginia for its leadership from the start, and we are doing better than a majority of the US when it comes to our drug overdose mortality rate. However, cannabis is often overlooked as an alternative treatment, including in Virginia where it is recognized for its medicinal qualities.

Let’s take a look at how medical marijuana can play a role in solving Virginia’s—and the Nation’s—opioid crisis.

Important note: If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid addiction, you are not alone and there is nothing to be ashamed of. There is support out there for you. If you are unsure of where to begin, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24/7 helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). If you believe you may be experiencing an overdose or withdrawal symptoms, call 9-11 to get help right away.

How Did We Go From Grandma’s Darvocet to People Dying in the Streets?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids are, “a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and many others.”

Unfortunately, most people don’t make the association between getting a prescription to manage post-surgical pain or back pain and dying from a fentanyl overdose. However, innocent pain management is sadly one of the many pathways to opioid use disorder.

You’re probably thinking, “Opioid addiction? Not me!” But if you have ever taken your cousin’s Vicodin, or taken more than you were supposed to because the prescribed dose wasn’t taking away your pain, you were misusing opioids without the supervision of a doctor. And that’s the first step toward addiction.

When the prescription runs out and patients turn to illegal sources (yes, taking your cousin’s Vicodin is illegal), that’s when things start to get dangerous for your average, law-abiding citizen.

Waking Up Addicted

Between 21 and 29 percent of people who use opioids end up misusing them, between 8 and 12 percent of people who use opioids to treat chronic pain develop a use disorder, and 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused opioids.

The longer you take opioids for pain management, the more likely you are to build a tolerance to them, which may lead to misuse in order to get the desired effects without the guidance of a doctor.

Big Pharma - Profits Over People

The extent to which major pharmaceutical companies pushed opioids despite knowing the consequences has only recently come to light. The Federal suit against Purdue Pharma is one of the most high-profile lawsuits so far, and the state of Virginia has filed its own set of lawsuits against Purdue, its owners, the Sackler Family, and fentanyl producer Teva/Cephalon.

In the Federal case against Purdue, the company pled guilty to knowingly distributing opioids to doctors who were then redistributing to people who were known to be addicted. It also promoted its products as safe and effective, while downplaying their addictive qualities.

The company also lied to the FDA about the measures it was taking to prevent drug dependence, leading to an authorization from the Federal agency to distribute even more of its products. And finally, Purdue paid kickbacks to doctors for prescribing its painkillers.

Purdue was ordered to pay out $8.3 billion to settle the mounting pile of lawsuits, and all future revenue from opioids will go to public addiction recovery and drug rehabilitation programs.

What Role Does Cannabis Play in Ending the Opioid Crisis in Virginia and the US?

First, it’s important to emphasize that current US research related to cannabis and opioid addiction is conflicted at best. Different studies offer different conclusions, and addiction is a vastly complicated issue affected by socioeconomic status, life experiences, genetics, and even the robustness of your social network.

We will not have many definitive answers about how cannabis can directly counteract opioid addiction until we’ve had more time to investigate the subject more thoroughly, but it is coming soon. The Federal government will be allowing more access to products for legal scientific research, opening the door for better understanding.

We do know that cannabis can be a powerful painkiller—making medical marijuana an important tool in preventing opioid addiction by eliminating or reducing the need for prescription painkillers.

Using Medical Marijuana for Pain May Prevent Thousands of Addictions to Opioids

Virginia is doing well compared to the national average when it comes to volume of prescriptions for opioids. In 2018, Virginia doctors wrote 44.8 prescriptions per 100 people, compared to the national average of 51.4 prescriptions per 100 people.

In Virginia, people who suffer from chronic pain are qualified to use medical marijuana to treat their symptoms.

Some studies indicate that medical marijuana may work synergistically with some opioids, making it possible to take a very low dose of both together in order to get the same results you would get from taking a larger dose of either alone. Additionally, taking medical marijuana alongside opioid painkillers could prevent building a tolerance—one of the first steps to becoming addicted to opioids.

Other studies indicate that you may be able to completely eliminate your need for opioids through the use of cannabis.

Most people find that using cannabis for pain management gives them more control over their treatment plan, and they take a more proactive role in the process. This leads to a much greater level of satisfaction with treatment outcomes, and it gives patients the freedom to experiment to find what works for them.

Opioid Use Disorder is More Complicated, but Cannabis Might Help

Cannabis may reduce withdrawal symptoms, and some states have opioid use disorder (OUD) on their list of qualifying conditions, and a recent study indicated that the number of cannabis dispensaries in a county (up to two) was correlated with a lower number of deaths from opioid overdoses.

However, OUD is a serious and life-threatening condition, and treatment should always be closely monitored by a doctor who specializes in addiction treatment and recovery. This means that any doctor recommending medical marijuana for OUD should also make every effort to ensure the patient is actively participating in a recovery program.

Making Sure Everyone Gets Access

At Virginia Marijuana Card, we want everyone to have the comfort, confidence, and resources to seek the assistance and guidance of an addiction specialist when combating an opioid addiction.

But we do need to give some level of consideration to the fact that some patients may never get any sort of treatment from a professional for a complicated mess of reasons. If this is the case, then using medical marijuana as a way to reduce harm is a reasonable solution.

Finding Help in Virginia for an Opioid Addiction

If you or someone you love is struggling with issues related to opioid use and you don’t know where to start, know that you are not alone. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24-hour hotline is 1-800-662-HELP(4357). You can call this number any time day or night, to get help sorting things out from a comforting voice on the other end of the line.

SAMHSA offers treatment referral services and the information you need in order to get on the right track.

Additionally, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services offers resources for local support, education and training, safer use options, drug take-back programs, and intervention assistance. There are also state-sponsored programs that address opioid addiction for pregnant mothers, and families grieving the loss of a loved one as a result of OUD or an overdose.

Getting Relief from Chronic Pain With Virginia Marijuana Card

If you are suffering from chronic pain, and you would prefer to take a more proactive, natural approach to your treatment, then give Virginia Marijuana Card a call at (888) 633-5808 or schedule a telehealth appointment to meet with one of our compassionate doctors.

We are able to help you create a treatment plan to meet your pain management goals, and we can help you find the support you need if you are struggling with an addiction to painkillers. We take patient support seriously, and we are here to help every step of the way!


Doctors Who Care. Relief You Can Trust.

At Virginia Marijuana Card, our mission is helping everyone achieve wellness safely and conveniently through increased access to MMJ. Our focus on education, inclusion, and acceptance will reduce stigma for our patients by providing equal access to timely information and compassionate care.

Call us at (888) 633-5808, or simply book a medical marijuana evaluation to start getting relief you can trust today!

Check out Virginia Marijuana Card’s Blog to keep up to date on the latest medical marijuana news, tips, and information. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to join the medical marijuana conversation in Virginia!

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