Could Cannabis Help Stem the Heroin Overdose Crisis?

Elizabeth Warren asked the CDC to investigate a controversial alternative pain-relief option.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Feb 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Heroin and opioid painkiller addiction is still on the rise in the U.S., and as states struggle with staggering overdose death rates, some are pushing for a controversial solution. Among those urging the experts to get creative is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who this week penned a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In her letter, Warren asked the CDC to investigate “the use, uptake, and effectiveness of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment,” as well as the “impact of the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana on opioid overdose deaths.” While commending the CDC for its efforts to study the current public health crisis of painkiller abuse, Warren made clear her interest in the potential of “alternative pain-relief options” such as marijuana.

“Across the board, we see medical cannabis patients reporting that because they start to use cannabis they’re able to stop taking a whole bunch of prescription drugs,” Jessica Gelay, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico office, told TakePart. “I’ve definitely seen a change in the way that cannabis is being approached and discussed, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that overdoses are still increasing, and we need to look at alternatives.”

Warren notes that in Massachusetts alone, opioid overdose deaths increased 65 percent between 2012 and 2014, rising to the highest levels ever seen in the state—a trend seen in other Northeastern and Appalachian states in recent years. Nationally, overdose death rates have nearly quadrupled in the last decade, according to the CDC. The uptick in use and deaths in the region, particularly among more affluent white users, spurred a $2.5 million investment from the Obama administration into a targeted program in the region that professes to put a public health approach before a criminal justice response to addiction.

Prescription painkiller addiction is understood to be a gateway to heroin use—once a patient with chronic pain becomes reliant on pharmaceutical painkillers but is no longer able to get refills, much cheaper heroin bought on the street is an easy, and potentially lethal, alternative. As the crisis has grown, medical marijuana practitioners in the Northeast have observed a surge in demand for cannabis to treat chronic pain.

“We are hearing patients come back year after year saying they use a lot less prescription medicine, and that they’ve completely substituted cannabis for heroin,” said Marta Downing, COO of Canna Care Docs, a consortium of health care providers in the Northeast that administer medical marijuana.

“I hear, ‘It saved my life’ over and over,” Downing told TakePart. “Cannabis offers a step down to something less harmful or not harmful at all. There’s no harm of overdosing, ever.”

While opponents of medical marijuana have argued that the drug offers a gateway into more dangerous drug use, Downing and Gelay both described cannabis as a “step-down” drug, leading away from more dangerous substances.

“Cannabis is an exit drug,” said Downing. “Drug dealers are gateway dealers to gateway drugs, which is what you deal with on the black market.”

In New Mexico, opioid and heroin addiction have long been an issue. The state ranks second in the nation, behind New Hampshire, for the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths. While medicinal cannabis has been legal in the state since 2007, Gelay said she’s noticed a marked shift away from the stigmatization of its use as the opioid crisis has crossed demographics and has begun to impact a broader socioeconomic spectrum of New Mexicans.

“Just as we’re seeing in other parts of the nation, as [opioid overdose] starts to affect constituents in more affluent districts, you do see more attention and more focus,” said Gelay. “It’s the sentiment that ‘now, it’s in my backyard.’ ”