Many of us have been on opiates at some point in our lives. From the time we tore our rotator cuff to the root canal we put off for seven years. From the surgery we had on our knee to that double-dare back in high school, pain happens. And opiates are good relievers.

Taking them from time to time is generally not a problem, assuming a valid prescription. The danger exists instead in people using them recreationally. In the United States, it’s become a full-fledged epidemic: today, opiates are the most abused drug in the country.

What are Opiates?

Opiates include drugs that are legal when administered by a doctor (drugs such as oxycodone, Vicodin, and fentanyl) as well as those entirely illegal (such as heroin).  They are derived from the chemicals fperson holding vicodin prescription ound in the sap of the opium poppy and provide users with feelings of pain relief, sedation, and a sense of euphoria.

People who take them as prescribed (and for medical reasons) aren’t typically at risk of their inherent dangers; it’s the abusers who carry that torch.

Taking too much puts a user at risk for respiratory depression, vomiting, seizures, and even death

Users who don’t overdose aren’t off the hook, either. Long-term abuse leads to liver damage (particularly if the drug is combined with Tylenol), brain damage, constipation, and dependency.

People who use opiates consistently or in large doses develop a tolerance for them; the 50 mg of Percocet that worked a month ago isn’t enough this time around. Thus, enter 100 mg or 200 mg or more. This is why overdoses are common: people chasing a high take larger amounts than their bodies can tolerate.

Why an Epidemic?

Opiates in the form of prescription drugs are driving the epidemic for a few reasons. First of all, they’re fairly easy to obtain legally. Unlike other conditions, there isn’t a blood test or an imaging technique that proves whether or not someone is in pain. If they say they are, many doctors believe them.

Opiates are also regularly prescribed after routine procedures such as wisdom teeth extraction or gallbladder surgery

This makes them readily available to people doing a little shopping inside the medicine cabinets of others: thanks, Nana, for having your hip replaced.

In an interview with The San Diego Tribune, Jonathan P. Caulkins, professor at Heinz College in Carnegie Mellon University, said while education and determent are useful, more could be done to address medical professionals illegally distributing opioids.

“For year after year, we kept not cracking down on crooked doctors and patient-doctor shopping and crooked pharmacies, and that was a big mistake,” Caulkins said to The San Diego Tribune.

Then there are those who buy opiates off the street. The most dangerous route to go, those sold illegally can be cut with other drugs. And they might not even be the drug advertised at all: someone thinks they’re getting 25 mg of Vicodin, but ends with something stronger. Still, this isn’t enough to deter all users. Opiates, including heroin, are cheap – people risk their lives in the name of a bargain.

Opiate Deaths, by the Numbers

The year 2014 was, unfortunately, the year of the overdose: according to the Center for Disease Control, more people died from drug overdoses during these twelve months than any other year on record. More than six out of ten deaths were caused by opiates. Since 1999, the number of people who have died as a result of opioid overdose quadrupled:

Presently, 78 Americans die each day from abuse of heroin or prescription pain relievers

Yet, simply telling opiate abusers to stop is usually ineffective: the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign does little to convince anyone of the dangers of medications. It just makes us hungry for eggs.  The withdrawal is another factor: users become so physically addicted that their bodies start to rely on the drug, making coming off nearly unbearable. The list of unpleasant symptoms includes anxiety, low energy, teary eyes, sweats, muscle aches, irritability, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Cannabis: The Savior

With the abuse of opiates obvious, something needs to be done: enter cannabis, wearing a cape and throwing out buds upon the masses. It’s not simply marijuana proponents hailing pot as heroic: we have science on our side.

According to a University of Michigan study, patients using medical marijuana for chronic pain control saw a 64 percent reduction in their opioids use

Studies conducted by the American Cancer Society found similar results, leaving one to ask: is the cure for chronic pain simply to smoke a little chronic?woman smoking marijuana to alleviate pain After all, it makes sense: cannabis plays on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us pleasure. Technically, it’s this pleasure that might be the key: researchers from the University of Oxford recently discovered that cannabis doesn’t necessarily relieve pain in the traditional sense; instead, it influences the emotional reaction to pain. People still have pain, they just don’t notice it as much.

Many find that specific strains treat pain better than others. For example,  indica strains, such as Girl Scout Cookies, have been cited by many to be helpful when targeting pain.

Patients don’t only report pain relief with marijuana, they also report improvement in their quality of life as well as fewer side effects. What’s more, pot might be effective for certain types of pain for which opioids aren’t ideal. Some research suggests, for instance, that cannabinoids, specifically cannabis strains like blue dream, work for painful conditions like Fibromyalgia– conditions that lead to pain without a pinpointed cause.

Of course, certain people argue that the studies are skewed by pro-pot groups.

Rat research demonstrates a similar effect: rats exposed to cannabis are less sensitive to pain

This gives more credence to the value of marijuana or at least shows that rodents are pro-pot as well. And that’s why they keep getting into your pantry.

Medical Marijuana States

Medical marijuana is, at least in part, legal in the majority of the United States. Population level studies have discovered that in states where it’s allowed, opioid use isn’t as common.

The logical conclusion is people with access to Mary Jane don’t need to reach for morphine

When overdoses spiked in 2014, the states with the highest amount of deaths were West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio. Only two of those states (New Mexico and New Hampshire) allowed for medical marijuana use prior to that year. Ohio has since passed legislation, but it has yet to go into effect.

Change on the Horizon

With cannabis helping people overcome pain without opioids, lawmakers have no choice but to listen. Some are pushing cannabis as a treatment for both prescription painkiller abuse as well as heroin addiction. Maine, who has among the most stable medical marijuana programs in the world, is at the forefront, pushing for placement of opioid addiction on the list of conditions that qualify for medicinal cannabis.

Other lawmakers are simply ignoring everything: the only thing they’re pushing are their heads further down into the sand.

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.