If you want to understand just how bad the opioid crisis has gotten, just ask Philippe Lucas - a cannabis researcher, who is also the Vice President of Global Patient Research and Access for the Canadian cannabis producer Tilray. "You have a higher chance of dying of opioids than being in a car accident," Lucas told delegates last Tuesday at the 2019 World Cannabis Congress.
That's why medical professionals are desperate to find a safer alternative to opioids. While recent studies suggest cannabis could be that alternative, many doctors and researchers are still wary of recommending medical marijuana. Their reasons have less to do with the plant itself and more to do with the stigmas surrounding it. Thanks to prohibition, medical experts are still wary of marijuana even though current research shows that it could be a life-saving tool against opioid addiction.
“If it was just about evidence, we would have ended prohibition years ago," Lucas noted. "By prohibiting, we’ve made it more dangerous, more stigmatized. In Canada, it’s been 8 or 9 months since it’s been legalized and the sky hasn’t fallen. There are few and moderate harms and lots of benefits.”
Much of the evidence in support of cannabis is based on feedback from patients who are using the plant. That has led organizations like the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) to treat that support as nothing more than anecdotal evidence, but Lucas thinks it would be foolish to dismiss the input of patients.
“Yes, more research is needed but don’t dismiss it out of hand. I’d like the CMA to look at cannabis in a different light — to dismiss the experience of 350,000 patients just puts the CMA on the wrong side of history.”
Feedback from patients is especially important because of how difficult it is to research cannabis. Because of prohibition, researchers must sort through mountains of paperwork to get the necessary licenses and permissions to study cannabis. That situation has caused a Catch-22 in which cannabis is difficult to study because of prohibition and prohibition remains the law of the land in America because there's not enough research to support cannabis legalization. And the longer prohibition remains in effect, the harder it will be to combat cannabis stigmas.
Those stigmas are not just a problem for medical professionals. Thanks to the War on Drugs, stigmas surrounding cannabis use have permeated just about every corner of society.
“Cannabis has a misconception and stigma around it – and growing up, I always heard that it was a gateway drug," Marvin Washington - a retired NFL player who won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos back in 1999 - said during the panel discussion with Lucas.
"Now that I’ve been in the cannabis industry for six or seven years, I’ve discovered that it’s a gateway away from other drugs. People don’t know the difference between CBD, THC or TLC,” Washington added.
He was just as uncertain about cannabis back in his playing days, when he saw fellow players get hooked on opioids that are commonly prescribed to deal with injuries that are occupational hazards in the NFL.
“Football is a contact sport and opioids are prescribed to manage pain," Washington said. "There are many addicted because training starts in August and the season goes to January/February – the football community is four times more likely to abuse opioids as other members of society. When I was playing, I didn’t know there was an alternative.”
Now that he knows about hemp-derived CBD - a compound that does not produce the high associated with marijuana - Washington is fighting to help players get access to it. But his influence alone probably won't be enough to force the NFL to reconsider its cannabis ban. In order to pressure the NFL into allowing access to cannabis, Washington thinks that advocates need a current star to step up and tackle the stigmas around cannabis use.
“The biggest impact would be for the NFL to have a sensible cannabis program for their athletes. If people see some of their hero athletes, like Tom Brady, using cannabis for treatment, that would help reduce the stigma.”
Of course, medical marijuana isn't just for athletes. People with various conditions can benefit from the plant's medicinal aspects. One demographic in particular could enjoy a much higher quality of life if they had more access to medical marijuana.
“The biggest number of groups looking for sessions on cannabis as a treatment option are rotary and senior groups,” said Lucas, who added that seniors are interested in cannabis because traditional medicine is failing them.
He also argued that physicians need to reorder their treatment options, which currently use cannabinoids are a third-line treatment option while opioids are the second course of action for treatment. Lucas wants to see cannabis switch places with opioids, but we might not see that happen until researchers feel comfortable with recommending the controversial plant.