LAPEER, Mich. – ‘Epidemic’ is perhaps the most accurate word in the English language that fully describes the devastating effects that opiates and opioids have had on our society in recent years. Truly, anything short of ‘epidemic’ is now a euphemism. According to www.cdc.gov, opioids (including prescription-based drugs, heroin and fentanyl) killed more than 42,000 people in 2016 alone, which is more than any year in history.

Forty percent of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid, meaning that many of these deaths and overdoses are caused by legally-obtained narcotics. This overdose epidemic has become one of the most troublesome and critical public health issues in decades, made even more disturbing by the fact that the plague is wholly avoidable. Fortunately, measures are now being taken to reverse this horrific trend, and in an effort to stem the tide, more and more patients and their doctors are turning to cannabis rather than potentially lethal pills.

Medical marijuana appears to have put a dent in the opioid abuse epidemic, according to new studies. Research suggests that droves of people are choosing to turn to marijuana as a way to treat their chronic pain and afflictions, and in so doing, are avoiding much more dangerous and addictive drugs.

Studies regarding the effect that opioids have on the body and mind are conducted every day. But many aspects of the drugs, including long-term damage and injury are still unknown. Changes in regional cerebral blood flow due to long-term abuse of opioids such as heroin or morphine are not yet fully understood in humans. It is recognized, however, that long-term opioid dependence seems to decrease prefrontal CBF in particular, and this change in CBF symmetry could reflect the different emotional status of opioid-dependent patients.

Production of natural opioids is triggered when the body experiences pain. But opioid medications can act as a signal to the body to stop producing endorphins; it instead becomes more and more reliant on the drugs. When the person takes more opioids, that increases the risk for overdose.

Cannabis, on the other hand, has proven to be extremely beneficial on a biological and psychological level in patients. Many researchers, both those who view marijuana as beneficial and those who are skeptical, argue that the government’s stance continues to hinder research that could prove the valuable chemistry of the plant and could yield favorable results in patients with chronic pain or diseases like cancer.

“I understand the cautious nature of the government, whose role is basically to protect its citizens, but it is disappointing that marijuana continues to be included on the DEA’s list of the most dangerous drugs,” says Dr. Yasmin Hurd of Mount Sinai, who studies the effects of marijuana on the brain.

Scientists argue that studying marijuana is safe and that researching it shouldn’t be such a difficult process. “A question that is not on the lips of researchers is whether or not the consumption of cannabis-based medicines is safe,” says Gregory Gerdeman, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Eckerd College. “In the biomedical research community, it is universally understood that cannabis is a very safe, well-tolerated medicine.”

It is already widely understood that marijuana is valuable and safe as a palliative medicine, offering comfort and relief to patients who would otherwise suffer. The hindrance that the government poses in its study and widespread use only serves to perpetuate the need for big pharma, including Purdue, which produces OxyContin.

A wide majority of scientists understand that patients could benefit from cannabis because of its palliative effects, which undermines the tenets of the Schedule 1 status. But additionally, there are anecdotal patient reports, increasing numbers of legitimate clinical case studies, and large amounts of preclinical studies that all indicate tumor-fighting activities of cannabinoids, and with great mechanistic detail.

Some researchers also want to study whether marijuana could stave off Alzheimer’s disease or even mitigate brain damage from stroke or concussions. One 2014 study suggested a compound in marijuana could slow the production of proteins that accumulate when a person has Alzheimer’s.

One state that is getting closer to proving and employing the myriad advantages of cannabis in patients is Maine. Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, and the state has one of the top ten highest rates of opioid overdose in the country. In 2016, the rate of overdoses from opioid drugs in Maine was nearly double the national rate. The number of heroin related deaths has jumped more than fourfold since 2012. For a state deeply embedded in the opioid crisis, many believe that medical marijuana could be part of a solution. Dustin Sulak, who has studied both cannabis and opioids, claims that when cannabis is used in the right way, can take a big bite out of the opioid problem.

Sulak is a doctor of osteopathic medicine and has treated hundreds of people with marijuana to wean them off opioid painkillers. He runs two outpatient clinics in Maine and started looking to marijuana as a potential solution when he noticed that a number of his patients were able to sustain their opioid dosages for years, never asking for more.

Dr. Mark Wallace, a pain management specialist and head of the University of California, San Diego Health’s Center for Pain Medicine, is seeing similar results in his patients. Wallace began investigating cannabis in 1999, when he received a grant from the state of California. He looked at the literature and realized that pot had a long history of therapeutic use for many disorders including leprosy, epilepsy and pain.

Within a decade, there were enough studies to convince him that marijuana was a real alternative to use in his practice. He estimates that hundreds of his patients, like Marc Schechter, have been weaned off pills through pot.

And a growing number of doctors and researchers like Wallace and Sulak are ready to provide the data to reschedule cannabis and begin using it in patients that could benefit from it. They say federal regulations are standing in the way of getting people the help they need.

“We have enough evidence now that it should be rescheduled,” Wallace said.

Bernie Jocuns, a Lapeer-based attorney and cannabis activist is another in a long line of men and women who are pushing to not only reschedule marijuana, but also to promote its use in the patients that need it. “Opioids are a scourge on our society and have proven to be ineffective as a long-term solution,” said Jocuns.

“It only serves to create addicts and the effects that opioids have on the human body can be just as harmful, or more harmful, than the disease from which they suffer. The addictive properties of opioids are crippling, and I can’t understand why doctors and medical professionals would ever want to put their patients through a potentially life-threatening or lethal treatment. We need to turn to cannabis as an alternative, we need to use cannabis in the ways we are now using opioids – to treat men and women with chronic pain or terminal diseases. And not only can it alleviate the symptoms caused by certain diseases and conditions, but it’s been proven to cure some of them as well. We need to move away from opioids and big pharma before it’s too late.”

As Michigan has moved towards legalizing recreational marijuana, along with the legalization of medical marijuana, doctors are beginning to replace opioid prescriptions with suggestions to visit a local marijuana dispensary. A 2014 study found that states like Michigan, with medical marijuana laws, had nearly 25 percent fewer deaths from opioid overdoses.

Let’s just hope people catch on to this trend and the mass migration from opioids to cannabis continues before we lose any more people to unnecessary prescription overdose deaths.