Cannabis may be the answer to Nevada's opioid problem

By Pete Findley

You can’t read or hear a day's news today that does not include mention of the opioid epidemic in the United States. It is estimated that more than two million Americans have become dependent on or abuse prescription pain pills and street drugs.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has formed a new state agency, the Opioid State Action Accountability Agency. They met recently to discuss the opioid crisis in Nevada. The core takeaways from the meeting were (1) Lack of reliable, timely and accurate data is a hindrance to fighting opioid problems, and (2) Nevada ranks above the national average in opioid prescriptions per resident.

Opioids are drugs formulated to replicate the pain-reducing properties of opium. They include legal painkillers like morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone prescribed by doctors for acute or chronic pain, as well as illegal drugs like heroin or illicitly made fentanyl. The word "opioid" is derived from the word "opium." Opioid use disorder is the clinical term for opioid addiction or abuse.

It is clear from the data presented by the new state agency that the opioid overdose epidemic in Nevada has its roots in the over-prescription of high-potency painkillers. We know now that these drugs carry an extremely high risk of dependence and can lead to fatal overdose.

In the U.S., the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by doctors steadily increased from 112 million prescriptions in 1992 to a peak of 282 million in 2012. The number of prescriptions dispensed has since declined, falling to 236 million in 2016.

Dependence is the culprit in this epidemic. People who become dependent on opioids may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the pills. Dependence is often coupled with tolerance, meaning that opioid users need to take increasingly larger doses of the medication for the same effect.

People who become dependent on pain pills may switch to heroin because it is less expensive than prescription drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that half of young people who inject heroin turned to the street drug after abusing prescription painkillers, and that three in four new heroin users start out using prescription drugs.

While the conversation about opioid abuse is about the path to addiction, very little talk has been geared toward long-term solutions. Missing from the conversation is how cannabis could be part of the solution. Now legal in Nevada, it deserves a closer look.

Pain, and the reduction in pain, is at the heart of the onset to opioid addiction. Finding relief for pain, without the serious addiction characteristics, is the long-term solution.

Cannabis contains several compounds including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the primary psychoactive component of cannabis) and cannabidiol (CBD, one of at least 113 active cannabinoids identified in cannabis). Beyond the well-known psychoactive effects of cannabinoids, new research has shown that they also interact with systems in the body involved in the regulation of pain.

Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is a product made from cannabis and is used by some people with chronic pain. Specifically, it’s a type of cannabinoid, a chemical found naturally in marijuana and hemp plants. CBD oil may reduce pain, inflammation, and overall discomfort related to a variety of health conditions. It also doesn’t cause the “high” feeling often associated with cannabis, which is caused by THC.

Studies on CBD oil and pain management have shown a great deal of promise. It seems CBD can offer an alternative for people who suffer from chronic pain and currently rely on more dangerous, habit-forming medications like opioids. But there needs to be more research in order to verify the pain-relieving benefits of CBD oil.

Initial findings have paved way for others in the research field to find associations between U.S. medical cannabis laws and reduced state-level estimates of opioid use and dependence. We need to study larger populations over a longer period of time and look at trends among different sub-populations affected by the opioid crisis.

Why not study the large opioid-addicted population in Nevada?

Currently, CBD products aren’t even approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any medical condition. This means they aren’t regulated for purity and dosage like other medications.

The legalization of marijuana in Nevada may be more than just a tax source for our citizens. It may also serve as a smart response to our opioid crisis. Nevadans deserve such a study.

Pete Findley is the CEO of Exhale Brands LLC.