Updated on January 28, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Within two decades, the rate of opioid overdose deaths has increased by over three times. While illegal drugs like heroin certainly play a part, prescription drugs that medical marijuana could replace are also to blame. Naloxone has become a valuable tool in the war against opioid addiction in the United States.
Humans all have an endocannabinoid system, which has cannabinoid receptors that react to marijuana. Opioids work in a similar way — they activate opioid receptors instead. Naloxone is an opioid receptor antagonist, which means it removes opioids from opioid receptors. When someone overdoses on opioid medication, another person can give them naloxone to disconnect opioids and stop their effects.
Naloxone is the generic name for three different kinds of medications. When a medication is simply called naloxone, it is an injectable vial. Only trained professionals should use this form of naloxone.
To make it easier for bystanders to help when an overdose happens, two branded types of naloxone came onto the market. Evzio comes in an auto-injection device that lets loved ones administer naloxone. When they start up the device, it gives them directions to follow to give the medication. Narcan is a nasal spray you can spray into an overdose victim’s nostril to provide relief.
Although naloxone interacts with opioid receptors, it doesn’t cause the “high” that opioids do. Instead, it triggers opioid withdrawal symptoms because it immediately removes opioids from receptors. Most symptoms only cause discomfort, such as:
More severe opioid withdrawal symptoms include hallucinations, irregular heart rate, seizures and fainting. However, they rarely happen and shouldn’t cause harm under medical supervision.
Any dangers associated with naloxone can happen when a person does not use the drug properly. Many of these mistakes have to do with discrimination against addicts. For example, EMT Kelly Grayson reports that people in his profession sometimes overuse it. When you use naloxone on someone who isn’t going through a lethal overdose, the severe side effects can happen. However, when you deliver naloxone to someone experiencing an overdose, it can save a life.
With the development of naloxone rescue medications ordinary people can use, more people can react to opioid overdoses. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of naloxone prescriptions filled in the United States increased by 1170 percent. In addition, you can find more than 600 community programs throughout the country that provide overdose education and offer naloxone.
Research suggests cannabis medicine could reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms experienced during naloxone treatment. Lowering the likelihood of symptoms like seizures and hallucination can reduce the chance of outside risks.
As far back as 1976, scientists observed fewer withdrawal symptoms in addicted rats treated with naloxone. In 2012, more data supported this argument. We already know cannabis can reduce withdrawal symptoms in recovering addicts, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to investigate its impact on naloxone side effects.
While naloxone can help us reduce casualties in the opioid epidemic, we need to ensure these high addiction rates don’t happen in the first place. Cannabis medicine can help by replacing opioids in chronic pain treatment without causing lethal overdoses — and that’s just the beginning.
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