Opioids versus Cannabis: Which is Worse?

In the eyes of the US Government, there’s really no contest between opioids and cannabis – opioids are legal (assuming a valid prescription); cannabis remains mostly illegal. Sure, the majority of states have some sort of medical marijuana program, but some are restrictive – you can’t smoke marijuana, for example, you can only access edibles, tinctures, or topicals.

The scheduling also portrays Uncle Sam’s feelings – many opioids and narcotics are listed in the Schedule II category while cannabis remains in Schedule I. This essentially states that smoking marijuana is more dangerous than taking Percocet or snorting cocaine. It also makes it clear that the federal government does not see cannabis as medically beneficial, something that goes against both science and anecdotal evidence.

According to Sessions…

Then, of course, there’s our BFF, Jeff Sessions. Instead of blaming the opioid crisis merely on opioids, he’s bent over backwards to link it to cannabis. But none of his manipulation can change what research is finding: cannabis can help people kick opioids or – more ideally – avoid them to begin with.

Opioids are necessary for some people but very addictiveNow, to be fair, opioids are very necessary in certain instances. People who are in pain so severe that nothing else will touch need something strong. But, when we talk about the opioid crisis, we’re not really talking about those who use opioids on an as needed basis directed by their physician. We’re talking about those who use them when they have no prescription (and no need for a prescription).

That, of course, is not legal – even the feds would agree.

Yet it’s happening – it’s driving the epidemic, an epidemic marijuana can help. So, how do opioids and marijuana line up head to head?

A Cure Shrouded in Mystery and Red Tape

Many doctors favor opioids over marijuana for chronic pain. Cannabis is hard to research because of its classification as a Schedule I drugThis has to do with old habits dying hard, sure, but it also has to do with physicians remaining unconvinced of marijuana’s abilities. As addressed in previous articles, the Schedule I classification makes marijuana difficult to study. It comes with much expense, many hoops, red tape, limitations, and possible ostracization from peers. In order words, it’s a giant pain in the assets.

On the other end of the stethoscope are the patients. And these are people who prefer marijuana over opioids. Some believe it is just as effective for their pain while others want to try it as a first-line of treatment before they commit to something they view as harsher. This isn’t always an option – if you live in a state where medical marijuana is not allowed, you may have no choice but to live in pain or try opioids (though some people do find non-medical treatment like yoga helps too).

While doctors and patients may disagree, it seems that the patient should have the edge in the decision-making process. It is, after all, their body. But they don’t only have that in their corner, they also have all of this…….

Marijuana Addiction Vs. Opioid Addiction

It’s believed that around two million people in the US are addicted to opioids that are available by prescription (thus, excluding heroin). Cannabis’s propensity for addiction has been mired in controversy. Some say it is addictive; most say it isn’t. Yet one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it’s not as addictive as opioids (or alcohol or nicotine or coffee).

Marijuana Overdose Vs. Opioid Addiction

While some news stories have attempted to prove otherwise, there are no clear-cut marijuana overdoses in medical literature. To be clear, I’m referring to overdoses that result in fatalities, not when you get higher than desired. As for opioid overdoses? In 2016 alone, more than 42,000 people in the US died from an overdose of opioids, making up 66 percent of the total amount of drug overdoses. This led CNN to publish an article with a startling headline: Opioids Now Kill More People than Breast Cancer.

Side Effects of Marijuana

Cannabis isn’t a magical leaf sent here to give us good health and the ability to live to be 200 years old. It has many positive benefits, but it has drawbacks too. Like most things in the world. Like alcohol, like exercise, like my precious, precious cheese.

Cannabis doesn't affect child and adult brains the same wayBut many of the worse side effects happen when cannabis is consumed in youth – these side effects can influence cognition. Recent research has demonstrated that cannabis impacts the developing brain in ways it doesn’t impact the developed brain. In essence, using cannabis before the age of 25 can come with side effects that can likely be avoided when using it later in life.

Even then, there are side effects as soon as you use cannabis.  These include paranoia, dizziness, hyperactivity, sedation, and a racing heart. Many of these side effects are dictated by strain (i.e., the higher the THC, the higher the level of paranoia).

Side Effects of Opioids

Opioids are by no means side effect free. Some of the more common side effects include dizziness, constipation, nausea, respiratory depression, and sedation.  And that doesn’t even consider the withdrawal symptoms.

Opioids cause physical dependenceA major side effect of opioids is also physical dependence, something that is made worse by tolerance. A 50mg dose of Vicodin may work for the first month, but then it stops, and the user must take more to obtain the same relief. This is the repeated pattern, the can of worms that pops open. It leads people down a rabbit hole of higher doses and harder drugs (like heroin).

This isn’t to say that everyone who uses opioids gets addicted – odds are most adults have been prescribed opioids at some point or another for wisdom teeth extraction or broken legs. Even when taken routinely for chronic pain, addiction is low. Studies suggest that between 8 and 12 percent of people who use opioids routinely (and as prescribed) will become addicted. They certainly remain a necessary option for those who need them.

Keeping them out of the hands of those who don’t is another issue.

Opioids versus Cannabis: Which is Worse? was last modified: by
Jenn Keeler

About the author: Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.