The Hidden Epidemic: What is the Answer?

In 2014, the number of deaths from drug overdoses exceeded the number of deaths from car crashes and gun violence with 60% of the drug-related deaths coming from the opioid category, according to the CDC (Source). This does not come as a surprise to me because as a college student I have seen far too many people leave school because of their drug addictions, mostly because of opioids such as Percocets, Oxycontin, and heroin. Aside from heroin, these drugs are not commonly thought of as especially dangerous since they are usually taken with the consent of a doctor. However, these prescription painkillers often lead to heroin use as a result of the addiction that arises from using these substances (Source). For example, last year there was 400 deaths in New Hampshire from opioids which is up from the 193 deaths the year before (Source). This has not gone without notice to public figures as Carly Fiorina, a former candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, addressed the issue multiple times during her run for the White House.

Fiorina, whose daughter died from a combination of alcohol and opioid abuses, stated “We need to start treating addiction as a disease” and followed up with another comment saying “We have to cover it, we have to treat it”(Source).

In fact, even President Obama has started to take the matter more seriously, allocating 1.1 billion dollars to the proposed budget for 2017 along with considering current opioid abuses an epidemic (Source). The CDC reported there were 47,000 Americans whom died from drug overdoses in 2014 which is higher than the 42,000 recorded deaths at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1995 (Source). So, since this is clearly one of the biggest issues the government has at hand, what could they do to counter this ongoing trend?

One theory is marijuana. Now, I am aware of the ongoing debate about whether marijuana should be recreationally legal or kept as an illegal substance, but that is not the issue here. What is being talked about here is the potential for marijuana to counter the opioid epidemic in this country and there is some evidence to suggest this may work. Research published in a 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association asserts the states that have legalized marijuana have seen a 24.8% drop in overdoses, leading to 1,729 fewer deaths in 2010 alone (Source). Although some scientists are hesitant to say marijuana was the main contributing factor in the decrease of deaths, other research has indicated there is a correlation with an increase of marijuana dispensaries and a decrease in opioid addiction (Source).

On the other hand, Jahan Marcu, chief scientist for the marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said the best results are shown when marijuana is combined with opioid treatment. In his own words, Marcu says “People given opiates and thc can be given 1/4 the opiate dose and get the same pain relief”(Source).

For those that do not know, thc is the main chemical responsible for the effects someone experiences when under the influence of marijuana. I am aware that it seems a little counter-productive to combine drugs to help someone recover from say a surgery, but why not try it out? Personally, I am in favor of medical marijuana because of the benefits that have been repeatedly publicized including helping veterans that suffer from PTSD, slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and helping control epileptic seizures (Source). 23 states and the District of Columbia have already legalized medical marijuana in some form (Source) and with the increasing public support for it, I find it hard to believe the trend is going to stop there. Therefore, if medical marijuana is already proven to help so many disorders and diseases, then maybe it is time we use it to treat people that are in drastic pain instead of giving them prescription painkillers that are shown to be immensely addictive.

Finally, the practices of doctors need to be altered if this epidemic is going to be alleviated. As the opioid epidemic has become more publicized, doctors have taken notice, and made subtle changes to fix the matter. Doctors in the past would primarily focus on eliminating the patient’s pain thus leading to mass prescriptions of opioids to reach that goal, but now according to Dr. Neel Mehta, medical director of pain management at Weill Cornell Medical College, doctors are focusing on increasing the patient’s functioning such as going to work and moving physically (Source).

These small changes, whether it is giving the patient marijuana or changing the way doctors treat pain, are maneuvers that could absolutely change the way pain is treated in the medical world. No one wants to see one of their friends or loved ones fail out of school or potentially die from a drug addiction that could be prevented, and unfortunately I have seen a lot of the former which is why I am advocating for evolutionary changes in this field of concern.

Contributed by R.A.


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