Could we beat the opioid epidemic by easing pain with marijuana?

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THE number of Americans touched by the opioid epidemic has reached alarming proportions. Millions of people are affected each year, and death rates from overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, numbering in the tens of thousands annually, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). But there may be a less-risky alternative to opioids for alleviating certain types of chronic pain: marijuana.
A growing body of evidence suggests that cannabinoids — chemical components in Cannabis plants or certain synthetic compounds — can be effective in alleviating pain, either alongside or in place of opioids.
As medical marijuana becomes more accessible in the U.S., it could serve as a safer option for some kinds of pain relief and could even help to reduce the number of people addicted to opioids, experts told Live Science. Opioid misuse and dependency have spiked in recent years. Beginning in the late 1990s, doctors began prescribing opioids for pain relief more frequently, following false assurances by pharmaceutical companies that the drugs were not addictive, according to NIDA.
In 2016, opioid-related drug overdoses killed about 116 people every day, with 42,249 people dying from overdoses that year and some 11 million people misusing prescription opioids, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Generally prescribed for severe pain, opioids — a family of drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the body and cause feelings of euphoria — are, in fact, highly addictive, and millions of Americans misuse opioids or become dependent on the drugs. Opioids include opiates; though the terms are often used interchangeably, opiates can also refer to a class of opioids that are naturally or synthetically derived from opium.
If people who are addicted lose access to prescription opioids, they may turn to dangerous illegal opioids, such as heroin, Live Science previously reported. But experts say medical marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids have been found to be highly effective for certain types of pain relief and carry a much lower risk of addiction than opioids. When a person uses marijuana, cannabinoids in the drug bind to cannabinoid receptors in the human body. These receptors are part of an existing pain-mitigation network that produces endocannabinoids “our own opiates” and primes the body to be receptive to compounds with a similar chemical makeup, Dr. Doug Abrams, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Live Science.