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Dr. Richard Boxer, in his recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, “Can Marijuana Alleviate the Opioid Crisis?,” holds out medical marijuana as a panacea. However, those of us on the front lines of addiction treatment know that there’s still not enough evidence to back up this conclusion. Although clearly well intentioned, Dr. Boxer’s position reflects misperceptions about marijuana that continue to permeate society.
Dr. Boxer argues that marijuana can offer better chronic pain relief than opioids and that its use has led to a reduction in opioid deaths in states where medical marijuana is legal. While it is true that states with medical marijuana laws have seen a reduction in hospitalization rates related to opioid abuse and overdoses, more research is needed to determine whether this shift can be attributed to medical marijuana or other contributing factors. Quite simply, there’s not enough data.
However, data does show that, in states where marijuana is legal, there is an up-tick in marijuana use among adolescents. In fact, Colorado, which Dr. Boxer cites as having a 6.5 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths, has become the number one state in the U.S. for marijuana use among pre-teens and teens 12 to 17 years old. Although it’s illegal for that demographic to use marijuana, slightly more than 11 percent of them have used it in the past month. Here at Caron Treatment Centers, 90 percent of adolescents seeking treatment are admitted with marijuana being their primary drug of choice.
Research has shown the dangerous impact of marijuana on the brain development of teenagers and young adults. The pre-frontal cortex – necessary for planning, judgment, decision-making, and impulse control -- is not fully developed until age 25. Marijuana can cause a permanent drop of six IQ points, similar to the consequences of lead poisoning. Teenage marijuana use is also a strong predictor of substance use and addictive behavior later in life.
Other potentially dangerous consequences include an increase in infants born with THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, in their systems. Studies show that marijuana use by mothers during pregnancy can cause changes in the brains of developing fetuses, while children born to mothers who smoked marijuana while pregnant have difficulty with reading and listening comprehension, impulsivity and attention.
We agree with Dr. Boxer that alternative approaches to treating chronic pain are an important part of the solution to the opioid crisis. However, we also believe that swapping out one addictive substance for another carries significant risk. Proven alternative pain management strategies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture, medical massage, physical therapy, should be mandated by the government as well as covered by insurance companies.
Two decades ago, opioids were considered the most effective way to manage pain, and now we are experiencing an unprecedented epidemic. We need to proceed with caution to ensure we don’t develop “solutions” that only serve to deepen the addiction crisis.