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Opioids vs Cannabis: The Dilemma of Long-Term Pain Relief

People who suffer from chronic and serious pain in the United States face an unfair dilemma. There are simply no effective methods of pain relief available that don’t come bundled with serious health risks, with the exception of cannabis, which remains an illegal Class I drug at the federal level, even though it has been approved for medical use in 21 states.

Opioid drugs, or those derived from the opium poppy plant, are highly effective at pain relief. They are also highly addictive. These drugs are meant for short-term relief of acute pain, such as for a few days while recovering from a surgery. When used for less than two weeks, and in doses no greater than those prescribed by a doctor, opioids present a fairly low risk of addiction.

Unfortunately, opioids have been adopted as a means of treating chronic, long-term conditions as well. With this continual and regular exposure, there is a much greater risk of abuse and addiction. Knowing the risks, however, doctors continue to prescribe opioids for long-term pain management, simply because there aren’t any good alternatives that are legal at the federal level. All of the other options cause serious health complications of their own if taken for too long and in doses that are too large. Aspirin increases production of stomach acid, ibuprofen can cause kidney or liver damage, and all of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase the risk of heart attack and stroke according to the FDA.

In most circumstances, either opioids or NSAIDs are the only real choices for pain relief, but neither is appropriate for long-term pain management. This is one reason cannabis legalization efforts are so vital.

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Cannabis has been shown to be highly effective for pain management in numerous medical studies, and it has been legalized for medical purposes in nearly half the states in the country. What makes cannabis so effective and safe is that it acts more on the perception of pain than on the “pleasure center” receptors in the brain, as opioid drugs do. Over-stimulation of those receptors decreases their normal function; long-term interference is the root cause of addiction. Because cannabis does not act on the brain in the same way, there is significantly less risk for physical dependency.

Cannabis has also proven to be incredibly safe as far as potential health effects go. It is nearly impossible to harm yourself physiologically with a cannabis overdose, and there are no known serious effects on the organs so long as it is not smoked.

Cannabis topicals add an extra layer of safety. These pain-relieving ointments are non-psychoactive. While psychoactive cannabis isn’t harmful, in large enough doses, it can produce unusual feelings and a state of altered perception that can be uncomfortable. There is no risk of entering such a state with a topical cream, so there’s also no risk of being impaired while working, driving or attending classes.

Cannabis also offers a cost advantage. Since it’s fairly easy to grow in a wide range of conditions, it doesn’t rely on pharmaceutical industry control to be available to the market. In the states where it has been approved for medical use, it is considerably more affordable than prescription opioids, the extremely high cost of which often cause people with addictions to turn to street heroin.

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When you consider all the factors, cannabis is a superior choice for pain relief in many cases. Federal legalization would likely both alleviate a great deal of suffering and take a major bite out of the opioid epidemic.

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