In a groundbreaking initiative, Colorado governor Jared Polis signed a bill which allows physicians to prescribe cannabis to treat conditions formerly addressed by opioids.
Opioids provide pain relief and are prescribed for a variety of chronic and acute conditions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in Colorado during 2017, there were 52.9 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 people. Opioids are highly addictive and can lead to long-term addiction.
State leaders recognize that alternatives to opioids are a priority for approaching the opioid epidemic. In November 2000, Colorado approved the medical use of marijuana for treating a variety of conditions, such as chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea. Dispensaries opened and the drug was widely used to alleviate symptoms.
In 2012, Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, making it more accessible. The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice provides information, education, guidelines and reports that enforce structure around the dispensing of cannabis for all purposes in the state.
Using Cannabis to Treat Chronic Conditions
The use of cannabis, or medical marijuana, to treat chronic pain is not a new idea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors and publishes research concerning the use of cannabis in cancer treatment and chronic pain. Cannabis is a plant, part of which has psychoactive properties. Cannabis, hemp and marijuana are all the same species of plant.
Insufficient research exists for marijuana to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration as drug treatment. Where it is legal for this purpose, cannabis or medical marijuana is used to treat to alleviate symptoms for the following conditions:
- Crohn’s disease
- Eating disorders
- Mental health conditions
- Multiple sclerosis
As research expands, cannabis and its extracts are widely more available in diluted versions as cannabidiol (CBD). More states are researching the potential of using marijuana as an opioid alternative.
Marijuana as an Opioid Alternative in New York and Illinois
Colorado is not the only state that is eager to find opioid alternatives. In 2018, New York state published an assessment that included proposals to regulate marijuana, including use as an opioid replacement. In a 2018 address, New York governor Andrew Cuomo called for New York agencies to measure the proposal’s impact on state health, safety and economy that would occur if marijuana were legalized.
The state of Illinois is one step further, having already launched an opioid alternative pilot program, which was signed into law on August 28, 2018. The program’s goal is to reduce deaths caused by opioids. Alternatives to opioids include cannabis.
Many people focus on the positive uses that cannabis has regarding an opioid replacement. The benefits of cannabis as an opioid alternative are:
- Pain reduction
- Decreased addiction potential
- A minimized physical impact
Lessons from Colorado on Using Medical Marijuana
Policymakers and community leaders across the nation can benefit from observing Colorado’s bold move toward using cannabis as an opioid replacement. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommend more research in the following areas to determine if Colorado’s model should be replicated:
- Clinical and observational research
- Health policy and health economics research
- Public health and public safety research
If marijuana can function as a helpful alternative treatment, Colorado may have made a monumental decision that affects public health systems and helps people across the entire country.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Marijuana and Public Health.” February 27, 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019.
Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. “Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado.” October 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019.
Illinois Department of Public Health. “Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.” August 28, 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019.
National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine. “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research.” January 12, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Colorado Opioid Summary: Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths.” March 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019.
State of Colorado General Assembly. “SB19-013 Medical Marijuana Condition Opiates Prescribed For.” May 23, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019.
State of New York. “Assessment of the Potential Impact of Regulated Marijuana in New York State.” July 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019.