Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on May 3, 2021.
Over the last few years, marijuana use has become legalized for both recreational and medical use in many states across the U.S. Yet according to the federal government, cannabis is still considered illegal to possess or use. The substance is listed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule 1 drug with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use on a national level.
Marijuana has been introduced as a pain management alternative to opioids, but is it truly safe to use? We'll explore how marijuana is used for pain relief and what you should look out for in terms of addiction and withdrawal.
The U.S. opioid epidemic continues to take its toll, with a reported 50,000 dead from opioid overdoses in 2019. The urgency of finding opioid alternatives has been growing alongside the interest in the use of medical marijuana for pain relief. Marijuana and pain relief studies have shown early evidence of alleviating chronic pain. In one study, research participants preferred cannabis to opioids. Research has also shown that opioid prescriptions decrease when medical marijuana is made available.
The connection between medical marijuana and pain relief largely has to do with one of over 100 components of cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD). Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another well-known substance that may play a role in the drug's effectiveness for pain relief. Unlike THC, which produces the "high" or elevated state of mind associated with marijuana use, CBD does not produce a high and has been used to treat severe epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.
If you use marijuana for pain relief, you'll want to be mindful of where you get your cannabis because potencies and quality vary. The University of Michigan Health Blog gives other helpful tips on how to use CBD for pain relief.
Any substance can become addictive over time, but some substances are more addictive than others.
Opioids tend to be more physically addictive than other drugs because it's easier to develop a tolerance, which means needing to take more of the drug to get the same effect. This increase in tolerance can lead to dependence — experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms — and then addiction, a compulsive need to take the drug. The increased drug tolerance can also make someone more susceptible to overdose.
In comparison, medical marijuana has a lower risk for physical dependence. That said, one can still experience withdrawal symptoms which can include:
This opioid alternative may not be a good choice for everyone. The risk for marijuana addiction depends on several factors, including access to other options, mental health and family history.
If you or a loved one has developed an addiction or dependency on marijuana, opioids or some other substance while treating chronic pain, we can help you start on your recovery journey. Contact us today to learn more about how our detox and rehab services.