Updated on January 28, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
The opioid crisis in the United States doesn’t only involve illegal drugs like heroin. In fact, many addictions start with a legal prescription. Patients looking for pain relief often get prescribed opioid medications like OxyContin. But, these medicines can have dire consequences for even the most well-meaning patients.
OxyContin is a branded medication containing oxycodone, an opioid drug. You take it as an extended-release tablet that’s meant to last for 12 hours. Patients receive a prescription for it when they have around-the-clock severe pain and an existing tolerance to weaker opioids. Oxycodone-based drugs shouldn’t be used as needed or for temporary pain. Like any other opioid, patients must carefully follow dosage directions to avoid as many adverse effects as possible.
While OxyContin has some side effects that don’t harm the patient in the long-term, it can also cause lethal overdose. When you take an opioid medication, it’s important to know what symptoms indicate danger. Side effects like dry mouth, mood changes and dizziness don’t mean major harm as long as they stay mild and go away. On the other hand, fainting, heartrate changes and breathing problems could come from an overdose and require a doctor’s attention.
Oxycodone has highly addictive properties on its own, and it can become even more dangerous in an extended-release form.
Opioids like OxyContin create a rush of dopamine that can eventually result in dependence. Dopamine creates positive feelings like reinforcement and pleasure that make the user want more oxycodone. Even when someone takes OxyContin as directed, they can get addicted — the drug’s website mentions this fact. While emergency visits related to oxycodone have leveled out in recent years, they still number in over 100,000.
Unfortunately, OxyContin has become the source of so many overdoses because of its marketing. Up until its manufacturer decided to rebrand OxyContin with addiction-deterrent features, ER visits sharply increased. This is likely no coincidence — as Esquire reports, the OxyContin marketing model relied on increasing prescriptions and dependence. Despite lower rates of overdose and prescriptions, the harm has already been done. More than 350,000 people died from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2016.
Medicinal cannabis can help us lower the high addiction and overdose rates in the United States. It has painkilling properties that work just as effectively as opioids for some patients. These patients can take marijuana medicine instead of opioids in the first place, completely avoiding the risk of addiction. Others who are addicted to opioids going through recovery can also use marijuana medicine to feel fewer withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Most remarkably, medicinal marijuana accomplishes these feats without the harmful side effects or potential for a lethal overdose. Medicinal cannabis side effects cause no long-term danger, and many of them go away with an adjustment to the treatment plan. Taking too much marijuana medicine only causes discomfort — not death or injury. It can achieve the same relief as opioids without the associated harm.
In some cases, a patient still needs to take an opioid medication for effective pain relief. Medical marijuana can help these people, too. Studies show cannabis can increase oxycodone’s painkilling abilities, letting patients take smaller doses. Cooper et al. discovered that the combination provided better pain relief and cannabis showed no abuse potential. Meanwhile, Abrams et al. found marijuana didn’t increase opioid levels in the bloodstream as it provided the extra relief.
If you’re interested in taking medical marijuana for pain or opioid addiction, search for a cannabis-savvy doctor in your area today.
Check out our resources on specific opiates and medical marijuana: