Doctors Eyeing Cannabis As An ‘Exit Drug’

Photo Credit: Eduardo Verdugo

Marijuana has long been labeled a “gateway drug,” or one that leads unsuspecting, casual users to a life strung out on hard drugs.

What if, instead, it’s an “exit drug?”

A body of research is growing that shows when states allow cannabis, doctors prescribe fewer opioids. Experts discussed the topic Wednesday, the final day of the Cannabis Learn Conference and Expo in Philadelphia.

In states that allow it for medical use, which Pennsylvania just started doing, implementation of a medical marijuana program was associated with a nearly 6 percent drop in opioid prescription, according to a study published April 2 by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The effect was slightly greater in states where it’s legal to use recreationally, the study shows.

In the U.S., more than 100 people die every day from an opioid drug-related overdose, according to the National Institutes of Health. Overdose crises for addicts increasingly start with a pain killer prescription that leads to dependence.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta (not the CNN medical reporter) of the Atlantic Pain and Wellness Institute in and around Philadelphia, said two key hindrances keep patients from trying cannabis to treat pain.

They believe opioid pain killers work better, and that cannabis poses a higher risk and worse side effects. He called that a misconception.

“We know that it is useful for pain,” Gupta said, referring to scientific research. Meanwhile other new research shows that opioids are may be no more effective for treating pain other medicines.

“The second thing is the economy of it,” the doctor said. “We talk to a lot of patients — they are not able to afford it.”

Patients who use cannabis still have to pay cash wholly out of pocket because insurance companies don’t cover it, meanwhile, insurers pay for some of the most potent opioid drugs.

“There is no reason for health insurance not to pay for marijuana when they’re paying for OxyContin, Dilaudid, fentanyl patch which is 100 times more expensive,” he said.