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Opioids vs Cannabis: What are the Differences and Can Cannabis Help?

If you follow medical news, chances are you’ve heard of opioids. Among the most commonly prescribed painkillers in the United States, opioids are prescribed by doctors for everything from chronic injury pain to the extraction of wisdom teeth. Does cannabis hold promise as a pain relief alternative to opioids? In this post, we’ll explore this question and others as we compare opioids vs. cannabis.

what are opioids

What are Opioids?

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, the term “opioid” refers to a class of pharmaceutical drugs. While many are created synthetically, others are produced from natural sources such as the poppy plant. They exert effects on the human brain including their primary function: analgesia (pain relief).

Some modern examples of prescription opioids include the brands OxyContin, Fentanyl, and Vicodin.

Using opiates to relieve pain isn’t a new concept. In fact, ancient Sumerians used poppy plant extracts to treat pain thousands of years ago.

Despite the pain-relieving benefits that opioids offer, there’s a dark side to these pharmaceuticals. Whether diverted from pharmacies or as “street drugs” created in illicit labs, opioids such as Fentanyl have carved a dangerous niche in the illicit market. Some sources, including the Centers for Disease Control, have described the current state of illicit market opioids as a “health crisis.” Nearly 70,000 people died from opioid-involved overdoses in 2020, up almost 30 percent from 2019. The number of fatalities continues to grow. 

Signs of Opioid Overdose

Opioid overdoses present major signals, and witnessing them suggests emergency intervention is needed. Signs of opioid overdose include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Slow heartbeat and breathing
  • Limp body
  • Pale face
  • Purple or blue fingernails and lips
  • Vomiting or gurgling
  • Inability to wake up

Using opioids along with alcohol can increase the likelihood of an overdose. Age also appears to play a part, with people over 65 demonstrating increased susceptibility to opioid overdose.

If you have questions for yourself or a loved one regarding opioid concerns, there is a national helpline offered by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that could be a good resource.


Opioids vs. Cannabis: Differences

First, let’s discuss some of the differences between opioids vs cannabis. One of the main differences between these two substances is their origins. While cannabis’ main cannabinoids, THC and CBD, both develop naturally in plants, many opioids are synthetic and the negative side effects of opioids can be life-threatening.

This is a key difference between opioids and cannabis: their rates of fatal overdose. The CDC estimates that opioids claimed responsibility for 70 percent of all fatal drug overdoses in 2020. That’s in stark contrast to cannabis, as the plant’s use itself is not known to cause mortality. Too much cannabis consumption may cause temporary confusion, nausea, increased heart rate or blood pressure, or emotional distress, but adult mortality attributed solely to consuming cannabis is functionally nonexistent.

Hope for Cannabis as an Alternative to Opioids

Cannabis has shown promise in the treatment of opioid dependency. One important similarity between these two plant substances is their comparable effects in potentially alleviating discomfort in the human body. As we noted earlier, the primary medical use for opioids is to relieve pain. Studies indicate that both the cannabinoids THC and CBD have the potential to relieve pain, in separate and complementary ways.

That’s given some researchers hope that medical cannabis may have a part to play in reducing the impact of America’s opioid epidemic. In fact, some studies have already begun assessing cannabis’ ability to replace opioids in patients struggling with chronic or intractable pain.

replace opioids

Cannabis and Opioids: Can One Replace the Other?

Since cannabis and opioids both demonstrate analgesic effects, some researchers believe that medical marijuana may present an effective pain-fighting alternative or adjunct treatment to opioids. In fact, research indicates that populations with access to medical marijuana may experience a significant decrease in opioid prescriptions.

However, the idea that cannabis could simply replace opioids remains hotly contested in medical circles. Most researchers agree that we need more data before we can definitively make that statement.

It’s important to remember that you ultimately have control over the medicine you take. Think you may want to explore cannabis’ potential analgesic power for yourself as a medical patient? Check out this online inventory of THC and CBD products. With a selection of flowers, concentrates, and more, it’s easy to find something to fit your preferences and individual situation. 

Please note that qualifying conditions vary by state, and the information relating to qualifying conditions may not apply to cannabis patients in all states.

Product availability also varies based on state program restrictions and rules, so the products discussed may not be available in all states. Be sure to check with your local Green Goods location about the products available in your state!