Is Cannabis an Effective Alternative to Dangerous Opioid Pain Killers?Dr. Zoltan P. Rona, MD, M.Sc. August 1, 2023
The government of Canada currently has a report on its website which states: “A total of 7,328 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred in 2022 (January-December). This is an average of 20 deaths per day. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average number of deaths per day was 10, which increased to a peak of 22 in 2021.” Instead of an improvement in the death statistics, the opposite is unfortunately happening.
In fact, the mainstream media has been reporting on the tragedy of escalating drug deaths, especially those from opiate prescriptions, for the past decade. Statistics published in the February 9th, 2016 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) are alarming:
“Fatal drug overdoses in the United States reached an all-time high in 2014, driven largely by heroin and prescription opioid pain reliever abuse. The CDC’s recent analysis of mortality data found that, of the 47,055 drug overdose deaths in 2014, 61% involved opioids, a 14% increase from the previous year.”
Had this been a vitamin or a natural health product, it would have made front-page news everywhere, and the offending product would have been taken off the market in Canada in the blink of an eye. Compare these death-by-opioid figures to death-by-vitamins, minerals, herbs, and all other natural health products which, in 2014, was zero.
If you think that opioids are only over-prescribed in the U.S., take a look at the Canadian statistics. While the new OxyNeo prescriptions are lower, the Globe and Mail recently reported a huge prescription increase in Oxycontin and Hydromorph Contin for Canada. This is not even counting prescriptions for Fentanyl, an opioid very much in the news and responsible for hundreds of deaths during the same period.
Further, on July 27, 2015, the Toronto Star reported that the number of fatal overdoses involving opioids overall jumped by 24% between 2010 and 2013 – from 467 to 577, and this statistic is not about to change, according to most authorities. Do we really need these drugs outside of the Emergency Room and the ICU of hospitals, where the potential is greatest for people to abuse them on their own? And are there any effective nontoxic alternatives to opioids?
The biggest problem with being on opiates, aside from the potential of dying from them, is the issue of addiction and how to safely recover from that. This is a challenge for drug rehabilitation clinics and is not a topic that will be dealt with in this article.
In my view, whether it’s for physical or psychic pain, opiates should be considered as a last resort, and preferably only in hospitals and trauma centers. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Canada and the U.S.
In another article, I wrote about natural ways of dealing with pain (see ‘Pain Relief Without Drugs‘). So there are definitely safe and effective ways of alleviating pain and avoiding addictions to opiates in the first place.
In addition to vitamins D and C, omega-3, magnesium, curcumin, serrapeptase, and probiotics, which are discussed in my previous article, one natural medicine that I neglected to mention was cannabis (marijuana). Cannabis is a plant that has been unjustly vilified for at least the last 50 years. Only recently has it gained some acceptance for its myriad of medicinal benefits. Mainstream opinion leaders used to call it “illicit” but now they refer to it as “medicinal”.
How Cannabis Can Help to Reduce Pain, Stress, Anxiety
Cannabis contains several active chemical components (mainly CBD and THC) that drug companies have been unsuccessful in mimicking or marketing for huge profits. Drug versions of these active compounds have significant toxic side effects. This is not the case with the intact, whole cannabis plant or its unadulterated components.
Pain – Numerous studies report that cannabis can work to replace opiates and several commonly prescribed drugs. Depending on the strain of cannabis, and the concentration of THC or CBD (cannabidiol), the plant has been successfully used for pain control, anxiety, depression, seizure disorders, autism, and insomnia.
Cannabis can successfully control moderate-to-severe pain, as an alternative to opioids in conditions such as MS and in different types of cancer. At present, various licensed dispensaries can make it available to people on a doctor’s prescription in Ontario. Changes in the laws governing access and use will likely be in place in the coming years with the new Liberal government.
Anxiety – People using opiates in an effort to control anxiety, or who are trying to wean off opiates and experiencing anxiety as a result, can often use cannabis as an alternative. Research shows that cannabis can attach to receptors in the amygdala of the brain and ease anxiety. Instead of using prescription opiates or anti-anxiety agents like benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax, Valium, etc.), cannabis will do the trick much more safely.
Stress and Sleep Disorders – Studies also show that stress and insomnia can be far more effectively treated by cannabis than by prescription tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Numerous patients in my practice have been able to wean themselves off these drugs, using cannabis.
Seizure Disorders – “In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works. Take the case of Charlotte Figi, whom I met in Colorado. She started having seizures soon after birth. By age three, she was having 300 seizures a week, despite being on seven different medications. Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to two or three per month.” – Dr. Sanjay Gupta (on CNN)
In my practice, I have prescribed high dose cannabis CBD extract for two patients who were experiencing daily seizures, with no benefit from prescribed medications. The daily seizures were reduced to two per month, with zero side effects in each case.
Depression and PTSD – Numerous studies also link cannabis benefits for depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), two conditions with a high suicide potential for which numerous drugs have often been prescribed. People suffering from these conditions often turn to opiates for relief, ending up either addicted or overdosed. Cannabis might just be one viable alternative to all that.
There appears to be no end to the opiate catastrophes involving addictions and deaths in this country. The more the government and doctors change the rules of access to drugs like Oxycontin and Fentanyl, the higher the death rates. Curiously, prescriptions for opiates are on the increase despite these tragedies.
What’s even more alarming in my mind is the near total lack of interest by the medical profession in the use of proven alternatives such as cannabis. The evidence supporting the use of medical marijuana is overwhelming.
In the U.S., the non-hallucinogenic component of cannabis (CBD or cannabidiol) is freely sold in health food stores. Not so in Canada where, for some bizarre reason, a prescription from a medical doctor is needed. Restricting access to cannabis in Canada is completely illogical since it is neither toxic nor addictive. One can bypass this restriction by ordering CBD on the internet from several American companies for personal use. Of course, this makes the product much more expensive than it would ordinarily be.
And prescribing cannabis drug mimics is not the answer. A cannabis drug mimic is a synthetic version of THC (Marinol or Cesamet are examples). These are sold on prescription legally in Canada. They are NOT real cannabis products. They are chemical perversions of cannabis manufactured by drug companies so they could legitimately sell a cannabis-like drug for profit under a doctor’s prescription. (See: https://www.drugs.com/illicit/marijuana.html)
Of course, there are also numerous nutritional interventions described last month in my article on natural pain control, interventions that could easily be applied to offset the opiate toxicity epidemic.
The solution is out there. It just has to be recognized as such and used.
“Modern medicine is not scientific; it is full of prejudice, illogic, and is susceptible to advertising. Doctors are not taught to reason, they are programmed to believe in whatever their medical schools teach them and the leading doctors tell them. Over the past 20 years the drug companies, with their enormous wealth, have taken medicine over and now control its research, what is taught, and the information released to the public.” ~ Abram Hoffer, MD
• Opioid and Stimulant Related Harms in Canada: https://health-infobase.canada.ca/substance-related-harms/opioids-stimulants/
1) Opioid Overdoses Continue to Climb. JAMA. https://tinyurl.com/jh3ufdk
2) Rudd RA et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016;64[50-51]:1378-1382
3) No Deaths from Supplements, OrthoMed News. https://tinyurl.com/hyab9mv
4) Prescriptions of Opioid Drugs Skyrocketing in Canada. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/sales-of-opiod-drug-prescriptionsskyrocketing/article26008639/
5) Oxycodone Deaths Down in Ontario but Other Opioid Overdoses Up. https://tinyurl.com/zfk4h47
6) Pain Relief Without Drugs.
7) Substituting Cannabis for Prescription Drugs, Alcohol and other Substances among Medical Cannabis Patients: The Impact of Contextual Factors. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dar.12323/abstract
8) Cannabis for Management of Pain. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1526590015008378
9) Cannabis for Anxiety. https://tinyurl.com/h25wjes
11) PTSD. https://tinyurl.com/ktmas5k
12) PTSD. https://tinyurl.com/hhat6zk
13) Depression. https://tinyurl.com/ltngr8a
14) Fentanyl Deaths. https://tinyurl.com/h5l579l
15) Abram Hoffer quote. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/300041.Abram_Hoffer
Zoltan P. Rona, MD, MSc, offers consultations on nutrition and natural remedies in Thornhill. He has recently retired from medical practice as a Complementary and Alternative medical practitioner and now strictly offers nutritional consultations. He is the medical editor of The Encyclopedia of Natural Healing and has also published several Canadian bestselling books, including Vitamin D, The Sunshine Vitamin. To see more of Dr. Rona’s articles, visit: www.highlevelwellness.ca and for appointments, please call (905) 764-8700; office located at: 390 Steeles Ave. W., Unit 19, Thornhill, Ontario