The opioid epidemic is one of the worst national health emergencies of the 21st century, brought on in part by poor medical knowledge about long-term opioid use and addiction. Nonetheless, as lawmakers and researchers continue to seek new ways to counter the crisis, one plant poses a potential solution: cannabis.

As cannabis legalization grows and the opioid crisis slowly shrinks, people are starting to wonder if there’s a link between the two. Now, the government wants to know as well. In September, the National institute of health announced $3 million in grants to investigate the therapeutic and potentially curative uses of cannabis.

Could Cannabis Help?

Right now, opioid addiction happens primarily because an opioid is prescribed to someone experiencing chronic or severe pain. Opioids are highly addictive, as they directly affect a part of the brain associated with pleasure and pain relief; as a result, patients sometimes develop a dependence on opioids to feel normal. Inevitably, the pain-relieving effects of opioids diminish overtime, leaving patients both addicted to the substance and requiring even more of the drug to get its effects.

The cannabis plant might help wean these patients off of opioids. Cannabis, specifically THC and CBD, is known for its pain-relieving properties, and some of the terpenes in cannabis also heighten this effect. What’s more, cannabis isn’t habit forming or addictive like opioids are. If researchers can isolate and administer the analgesic effects of cannabis in a way that allows patients to get rid of their reliance on opioids, then cannabis could prove an effective solution for a crisis that’s plagued much of rural America. 

Of course, researchers aren’t fully convinced about cannabis. For one thing, cannabis and opioids affect different receptors in the brain – the endocannabinoid receptors versus the endogenous opioid receptors. Additionally, THC’s psychoactive effects could diminish its utility in fighting addiction, as THC also has the potential for long-term abuse. Finally, the diversity of terpenes and chemicals in cannabis makes it tricky to know which combination of chemicals might be effective in both controlled studies and real world applications.

Nonetheless, the NIH’s investment into cannabis as a potential cure is significant, as the government has sponsored very little cannabis research in past years. If researchers can prove that cannabinoids are an effective solution, or part of a solution, to fixing opioid addiction, then the decades long crisis could come to a close, and medical marijuana legalization could be much more likely in all fifty states.

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