Ensuring Adequate Pain Relief Is Compassionate Policy

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For years, The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has obstinately insisted that cannabis is as dangerous as opioids and heroin. Those in the know, from activists to doctors, would bristle at the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance. The Schedule 1 classification means that the federal government does not recognize any medical benefits or uses for cannabis and also considers it at high risk for abuse and addiction.

Every part of that classification can be torn apart quickly. First of all, cannabis is not physically addictive. While people may become psychologically dependent to cannabis or habituated to its use, they will not experience severe physical withdrawal symptoms as they would on other substances. It can serve as an exit drug, helping those attempting to quit other substances. More importantly, cannabis has a host of potential medical benefits. The federal government, of course, is actually aware of that fact. After all, they hold a patent on cannabis.

The DEA, however, has based its outdated policy more on the ongoing desire to prohibit cannabis medical research. Now, however, they finally seem to be shifting in the other direction. Many news outlets last week announced the fact that the DEA is publishing a paper calling for the increased cultivation of cannabis for medical research and a correlated decrease in opioid prescriptions and domestic production of certain narcotic painkillers.

At first blush, this seems like a potential step forward. After all, if the DEA is now recognizing risk solution for chronic pain sufferers then opioids and opiates, surely that means that rational policy changes are coming, right?

It is certainly true that cannabis offers a unique mechanism for helping people control pain. It also offers other benefits to people with chronic medical conditions, such as improved sleep and appetite stimulation. However, cannabis cannot truly substitute for the profound pain relief provided by opioid and opiate medications.

It is true that a number of people who receive prescriptions for narcotic painkillers could use cannabis as a substitute. That simply is not true for everyone. Some people experience such intense, extreme, and debilitating ongoing pain that cannabis alone can simply not control it. Used in conjunction with narcotic painkillers, cannabis can improve the quality of life and level of relief experienced by those with severe ongoing pain. However, it is not a panacea that can resolve all pain issues for everyone.

The DEA’s new stance is promising, because it indicates that policy going forward will at least somewhat recognized the medical benefits of cannabis. That may help in the push to reschedule or deschedule cannabis in the future. However, this policy is over looking the most at risk, suffering patients who struggle with chronic pain.

Simply phasing out opioid and opiate prescriptions will do nothing to help these people. They will still struggle with pain and functional living on a day-to-day basis. While our society does need to consider how we can reduce the opioid epidemic, simply reducing access to medications that people depend on is not the answer.

Instead, we need to be compassionate toward those that require serious narcotic painkillers and those struggling with addiction. Many of these people worked in pain for years as their conditions worsened. Others abuse the medications as a form of self-medicating after a lifetime of mental pain and struggling. Until we address the root causes, people will simply find new substances to abuse, including alcohol. Meanwhile, we will have condemned those in the worst pain to suffer without relief.

The DEA wants to pretend that cutting domestic production of and prescriptions for painkillers is the solution to decreasing narcotic diversion. Better social supports and financial safety nets for the disabled may be a better option. With better access to mental health care and physical health care, fewer people would end up self-medicating with illegally obtained painkillers. More importantly, a more compassionate approach to disability for those in chronic pain would allow them to live without needing to sell medication to others to pay their bills or buy food.


For previous Ladybud articles about the DEA, click here.



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