Opioids have been one of the most popular types of pain medications through the ages. The drugs that they’re derived from, namely opium and morphine, can be traced back thousands of years. But now we’re all well aware that along with their benefits come a number of costs. Most would even argue that opioids’ disadvantages outweigh these benefits.
In fact, the 2017 national data say that more than 2,900 Canadians died that year due to an opioid overdose. Of those deaths, the widely prescribed pain drug fentanyl caused 72% of them.
This is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Some politicians are now talking about introducing tighter rules around prescribing opioids, as well as increasing spending on addiction detox and recovery programs.
But is there anything else patients can take to ease pain without the risky side effects? Anecdotal evidence and scientific data tell us that cannabis can quell pain without the risk of overdose death or addiction. Why? It all has to do with the fact that both substances affect the brain differently.
What Exactly Are Opioids?
An opioid is a powerful class of drug that has extremely addictive qualities. It includes the street drug heroin and other legal prescription drugs like oxycodone. Opioid abuse has become so widespread that many consider it an epidemic throughout North America.
It may surprise you, but our own bodies produce natural opioids. These are endorphins that impart feel-good sensations when we achieve a goal, enjoy food or experience a fun activity. They’re the naturally occurring opioids inside our bodies. These natural opioids bind to opioid receptors found on the surface of nerve cells to impart those feelings and trigger our pleasure-reward circuit.
Unfortunately, opioid drugs are more powerful than their natural counterpart, because it hijacks the brain’s reward system, and in the process produces unhealthy habits of dependence, cravings and addiction.
Researchers now also think that synthetic opioids result in addiction while our natural opioids don’t cause dependence, because the man-made opioids also bind with receptors inside cells, which the natural chemicals don’t do.
Why Can Opioid Drugs Be Fatal?
The risk of death because of opioids is unfortunately two-fold. They can cause death or other medical complications if you take too many, and also if you detox from opioids too quickly.
Opioid drugs suppress sensations of pain and decrease the production of norepinephrine, the chemical in the brainstem responsible for regulating:
- Heart rate
- Energy levels
- Blood pressure
So, when a person abruptly stops taking opioids, the production rate of norepinephrine exponentially increases. This leads to withdrawal symptoms, and in worst-case scenarios to death.
On the other hand, when there are too many opioids in the system, it can cause suppressed breathing and the heart rate can slow to critical levels.
Marijuana Acts on the Endocannabinoid System, Not Opioid Receptors
While cannabis also treats pain, it doesn’t cause the same possible side effects as opioids do. And this is because the molecules in cannabis, called cannabinoids, don’t act on the opioid receptors, but rather on the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The ECS is a network of receptors found throughout the body. It contains cannabinoid receptors found in different parts of the body, including the:
- Body organs
These are responsible for maintaining a person’s immune system, regulating temperature, and controlling mood and behaviour.
And like opioids, we also produce natural cannabis molecules called endocannabinoids. Some of the more famous ones are 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) and anandamide. There are also natural cannabinoids found in spices such as black pepper, cumin and turmeric.
No One Has Ever Died of a Cannabis Overdose
As with opioids, cannabis can awaken a person’s pleasure and reward system with the help of cannabinoid receptors found in the brain and spine. This is the reason why cannabis and opioid consumers experience similar effects of euphoria, relaxation and pain relief.
But what makes the two substances different however, is that the brainstem has lots of opioid receptors and only a few cannabinoid ones. This means that the brainstem, which is one of the most important and delicate parts of the brain, isn’t affected that much by the presence of cannabinoids.
This also means that because there are only very few cannabinoid receptors found in the brainstem, it’s virtually impossible for a person to die from taking too much cannabis. Meanwhile, high doses of opioids can suppress breathing and heart rate, increasing the risk of death.
Cannabis dependence also isn’t very strong as compared to opioids because the reward system is controlled. In fact, cannabis dependence can even be reversed with the help of abstinence and cognitive behavioural therapy, processes which are both easy to facilitate.
What’s even better is that the consumer doesn’t go through debilitating withdrawal symptoms such as:
Whereas detoxing from opioids can be excruciating with some or all of the symptoms above. Some cannabinoid compounds are also effective in reducing a person’s pain without giving any psychedelic effects.
In fact, some people are starting to consume cannabis to help end their addiction to opioids. It’s a safer way to not only find pain relief, but also to boost the body’s production of natural opioids and cannabinoids
The Bottom Line: Cannabis Is Safer Than Opioids Are
Cannabis can undoubtedly trigger a person's response to pleasure and the body's natural reward system, to an extent where some find it hard to stop. However, this doesn't pose any health risk or cause serious withdrawal symptoms like opioids do.
Because the brainstem has very few cannabinoid receptors, taking it no matter how much or how often doesn’t alter the production process of norepinephrine. And even if going cold turkey from cannabis may cause a few unpleasant feelings, it’s nothing compared to the life-threatening symptoms that opioid withdrawal does to the body.
Cannabis, unlike opioids, also doesn’t lower your heart rate or slow down a person’s breathing, because of the minuscule amount of cannabinoid receptors found in the brainstem.
The two drugs may offer pleasant feelings to a person, but cannabis does it in a much safer way.
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