For a generation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) stood with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as one of the pillars of prohibition. NIDA controls the cannabis supply available for research, and for those willing to suffer through the maze-like bureaucratic process, approved studies typically had to look at cannabis-related harm. Likewise, NIDA-funded research often came to inept conclusions like, "Marijuana has as much potential for abuse as… cocaine and heroin." As any rehabilitation professional could tell you, that's some pretty stupid shit right there.
Well, as previously reported by PRØHBTD, the agency made waves in 2015 when it introduced a DrugFacts page titled "Is Marijuana Medicine?" that answers yes. Then in April 2017, the title dropped the question mark and simply stated: Marijuana as Medicine. The updated page even threw shade at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for not yet recognizing the medical value of cannabis.
Guess what? The agency is at it again. NIDA Director Nora Volkow and National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis S. Collins (the dude led the Human Genome Project) co-authored "The Role of Science in Addressing the Opioid Crisis" in the recent New England Journal of Medicine. The doctors emphasized the scope of the opioid-abuse epidemic, which claims 90 lives every single day, and explained its many short- and long-term strategies. Then, under a section titled "Non-Addictive Treatments for Chronic Pain," the authors dove into medical cannabis with the following:
"Compounds that target non-opioid pain pathways, such as the endocannabinoid system, are also being evaluated for chronic pain management. There is strong evidence of the efficacy of cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), in treating pain. Medications that target the endocannabinoid system without producing the cognitive impairment and rewarding effects of marijuana could provide a powerful new tool."
This comes on the heels of 2017 additions to the agency website that stated, "NIDA funded two recent studies that explored the relationship between marijuana legalization and adverse outcomes associated with prescription opioids. The first found an association between medical marijuana legalization and a reduction in overdose deaths from opioid pain relievers, an effect that strengthened in each year following the implementation of legislation…. The second NIDA-funded study... showed that legally protected access to medical marijuana dispensaries is associated with lower levels of opioid prescribing, lower self-reporting of nonmedical prescription opioid use, lower treatment admissions for prescription opioid use disorders, and reduction in prescription opioid overdose deaths. Notably, the reduction in deaths was present only in states with dispensaries (not just medical marijuana laws) and was greater in states with active dispensaries."
The NIDA page also noted, "Another recent study analyzed Medicare prescription drug coverage data and found that availability of medical marijuana significantly reduced prescribing of medications used for conditions that medical marijuana can treat, including opioids for pain. Overall savings for all prescription drugs were estimated to be $165.2 million in 2013…. [The studies] cumulatively suggest that medical marijuana products may have a role in reducing the use of opioids needed to control pain."
The prohibitionists like to say cannabis is a gateway to opioids, but cannabis might actually be the gateway to opioid abuse recovery. This is not a surprise to many cannabis advocates, but it's outright shocking to see the NIDA chief endorse this as a likely medical benefit of the plant. The agency's pivot toward cannabis as medicine puts more pressure on the FDA and DEA to reschedule or deschedule cannabis, and in real-life terms, the pivot has and will save countless lives affected by opioid abuse.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.