It’s hard to go a day in Canada without hearing about at least one of two types of drugs – but for vastly different reasons. One class of drug — opioids — kills four people a day in British Columbia. The other — cannabis — will be legal for adult purchase and consumption by this time next year.
The opioid overdose epidemic is Canada’s gravest public health crisis since the emergence of HIV in the 1980s. With its roots in the over-prescription of high-potency painkillers, sparked by the contamination of the illicit drug supply with fentanyl and related drugs, the crisis has reached across demographic divides.
Could cannabis legalization be a part of this solution? Increasingly, this is what the latest scientific research indicates.
The opioid crisis is a product of the medical system’s over-reliance on opioids for pain relief. Almost one in five Canadians live with some form of chronic pain. Twenty years ago, pharmaceutical companies began to develop slow-release formulations of opioids (e.g. OxyContin) and marketed them as safe and effective medications for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain.
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“People are afraid of opioids right now. There’s a stigma. Patients don’t want to be on opioids,” Michael Leong, a pain specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, told Technology Review. Using pain relief devices can reportedly drastically reduce or eliminate a patient’s need for pain medication, particularly powerful opioids.
Terri Bryant was on fentanyl for her back pain until she took part in a clinical trial of a spinal cord stimulator that was implanted under her skin at the base of her spine. After getting the implant her pain decreased almost immediately and she was able to stop taking fentanyl, which was a relief to her.
The medical community is now looking to develop devices that provide the same sort of relief without needing to be surgically implanted. One such device, Neuro-Stim System Bridge, is placed behind a patient’s ear and gives off electrical pulses to certain areas of the brain.
The device has proved very effective for helping people overcome the pain of withdrawing from opioids and is now used in 30 states to support detox. Patients wear the bridge for the first five days after they stop taking opioids in order to get them through the toughest part of withdrawing.
Yet not everyone is convinced that pain management devices are the answer to America’s chronic pain problem. Edward Michna, a pain management specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said that we need more long-term research into their effectiveness.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the number of babies dependent on opioids nearly doubled from 2010 to 2015.
Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo is one of many hospitals across Colorado seeing a big spike in babies dependent on drugs.
The hospital treated 32 infants in 2015 and saw 37 babies exposed to opiates in 2016. That’s up from just one or two a year before 2011.
Most of the drug-dependent babies the hospital sees are addicted to heroin. Nationwide, the number of newborns addicted to opioids is up 400 percent since 2000.
Health officials say cuddling helps the babies through some of the most difficult days as newborns.
“With cuddling, you get control of some of those minor symptoms of withdrawal and it’s actually seen as our first line of medical treatment,” said Camille Hodapp, a nurse practitioner at Parkview Medical Center.
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The announcements have come from three major government agencies, and reactions have come from a number of well-known health-related organizations.
“Drug overdose, driven largely by overdose related to the use of opioids, is now the leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States. The ongoing opioid crisis lies at the intersection of two public health challenges: reducing the burden of suffering from pain, and containing the rising toll of the harms that can arise from the use of opioid medications,” stated the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in their comprehensive report released last week.
Fewer prescriptions but more deaths
In its latest Vital Signs report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a number of opioids prescribed in the United States peaked in 2010 and have decreased every year through 2015.
“The amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. is still too high, with too many opioid prescriptions for too many days at too high a dosage,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC in a press statement.
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