Medical cannabis can help reduce our nation's pain epidemic

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, the president’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, lead by Governor Chris Christie (R), held its third meeting entitled: Innovative Pain Management and Prevention Measures for Diversion.

The agenda, which was not released until the day it was scheduled, included testimony from 10 invited organizations, all of which were from the pharmaceutical industry. Consequently, the tone of the meeting came off as a commercial by each of the companies asking for government assistance in getting their medications to market more quickly.

One in three Americans suffer from chronic pain and one in ten have experienced severe pain every day for three months or more. If effective pharmaceutical alternatives to opioids for chronic pain already exist, why aren’t we already using them?

While it is quite possible that innovations from the pharmaceutical industry could be helpful in providing health care practitioners with alternative treatments to chronic pain, these innovations can take years to develop. All of the medications currently on the market the presenters discussed also include a laundry list of side-effects such as nausea, anxiety, insomnia, and impotence. Why not explore what millions of Americans are already using successfully as an alternative or adjunct treatment to pain, with little to none of the side-effects associated with pharmaceutical treatments, medical cannabis?

If the intent of the commission is to truly look at innovations in pain management, then why were pharmaceutical approaches the only ones discussed on this panel? There are numerous non-pharmaceutical interdisciplinary approaches and therapies to pain management that were not discussed at all, and a glaring omission was medical cannabis.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health expressed the need to accelerate the pace of how medicines that may help with chronic pain are researched and obtain FDA approval. However, there was no mention of accelerating research into using medical cannabis to treat chronic pain.

Americans for Safe Access, the country’s largest patient-focused medical cannabis advocacy organization, requested to be included in today’s meeting to provide testimony, but was denied a seat at the table. Innovation is typically associated with new ideas or creativity in application. Although medical cannabis has been used as a treatment for pain for thousands of years, a concerted effort in applying medical cannabis as a tool to help fight the opioid crisis is not only innovative, but has great potential. Ignoring this potential is a grave error by this commission.

Why should medical cannabis be considered a tool to fight the opioid crisis? Thirty states, including those most negatively impacted by the opioid crisis such as West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Ohio, and Washington, D.C. all have medical cannabis programs. Many of these states allow medical cannabis to be used to treat chronic pain.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that in states with medical cannabis programs, there has been a 25 percent reduction in opioid related deaths. This study also showed a 13 percent decrease in hospitalizations from opioid related causes. In a survey of nearly 3,000 pain patients, 93 percet preferred medical cannabis over opioid therapies for pain management. In addition to the data, there are thousands of personal stories of patients who have been able to reduce the number of opioids they take or come off opioid therapies altogether by using cannabis.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicines revealed strong clinical evidence that cannabis is highly effective in treating chronic pain. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has indicated that medical cannabis legalization might be associated with decreased prescription opioid use and overdose deaths.

A NIDA funded analysis showed that a areas with a greater number of medical cannabis dispensaries were associated with decreases in opioid prescribing, in self-reports of opioid misuse, and in treatment admissions for opioid addiction. This past week the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicated that medical cannabis “might be effective for chronic...primarily for neuropathic pain patients.”

Cannabis alone will not end the opioid crisis. Cannabis will not and should not replace the prescribing of opioids or other pain medications. And we recognize, that cannabis, like any other medicine has side effects. But we can not continue to ignore the usefulness of medical cannabis in reducing our nation's pain epidemic. Cannabis is one of many tools that can help fight this epidemic. And it is a tool that this commission should consider carefully and seriously.

Steph Sherer is founder and executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA). ASA is the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists, and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research. Alongside the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), she has created the first industry standards in the areas of Distribution, Cultivation, Analytics, and Manufacturing, Packaging, and Labeling.