Marijuana Works Better Than Opiates To Control Pain: Here’s How

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One compelling argument for the legalization of medical marijuana is its ability to ameliorate intense pain. Currently available technologies have helped us gain understanding of cannabis, as well as its more-commonly-accepted opioid counterparts, and the affects they have on pain.

In 2010, as an attempt to gain insight on pain’s function in the brain, Oxford University conducted a study using fMRI machines and the standard tricks of psychology. Volunteers were monitored during zaps of pain to their feet.

Some areas, they were told, had the potential to be unsafe. In those spots, the volunteers reported their pain levels as being higher. In reality, all of it was safe. Interestingly, in the fMRI machines, the anterior insula lit up before they were ever zapped. Thinking about, anticipating and fearing pain caused their brains to assume—caused them to feel—the physical sensation of pain.

It’s all in the way human brains are hardwired. The parts of the brain where emotions are processed (the limbic system) are directly connected to the parts where physical stimuli are detected (the somatosensory cortex).

This wiring is what gives us the definition of pain, as according to The International Association for the Study of Pain:  “An unpleasant and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” In essence, it is your brain telling you that somewhere in your body, something is wrong.

Let’s first take a look at the federally recognized, legal remedy for pain: opiates.

As it stands currently, opiates are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. This is regardless of the fact that they only have a 30-40 percent success rate for reducing pain. Moreover, 80 percent of the time, they are accompanied by horrible side effects—hormonal imbalance, constipation (often leading to fecal impaction), nausea, and intense drowsiness just to name a few. In order to combat these side effects, patients often have to “take drugs to offset the drugs.”

Although it can be argued that these side effects are relatively small, potentially just inconveniences, the number of people who die from overdoses is not. That is, 125,000 lives in the last decade. The body will build up a tolerance and require higher doses over time, resulting in addiction, illegal drug use and possibly death.

“It started with a snowboarding accident; my knee got really messed up. They had me on Morphine and OxyContin for a while, but eventually the prescriptions ran out. As soon as they stopped giving me a legitimate source, I got into the underground scene,” says Randall*. “I was pronounced legally dead once, but I still didn’t clean up. My eight-year addiction didn’t stop until it eventually landed me behind bars.”

Cases like Randall’s are not uncommon; roughly 6 percent of people who take legitimately-prescribed opiates try heroine within ten years.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma (producer of OxyContin) was sued in regards to the built-in time-release OxyContin, which opiate abusers ardently seek. Their marketing led doctors to believe that it had a lower risk of addiction. Abusers discovered they could crush or chew the drug and get the full dose (which is meant to last hours) all at once. Purdue’s defense? They hadn’t advertised to customers, only to doctors. They lost the case and paid $634 million in fines.

Medical cannabis, unlike opiates, doesn’t alleviate pain; it alleviates your emotional response to pain.

Upon observation, it is recognized that higher THC strains do this more effectively. THC is received in your emotional center (the limbic system), which is what causes the relaxation effect.

Marijuana as pain relief? It’s all in the way our brains are hardwired.

*indicates names have been changed to protect identities

Have you used marijuana or opiates to treat pain? Which do you prefer? Tell us in the comments below!

Kylie is a student and volunteers with the Drug Policy Project of Northern Utah and has been a lover of writing since before she was born. She loves potato cake psychological thrillers. Kylie is a freelance writer for Cannabis Now Magazine.

36 Comments

  1. Sergio McGeez

    November 11, 2014 at 4:29 am

    Marijuana indeed are helpful for people who have health problems. This kind of article will surely inform them. Keep writing and thanks!

  2. Kelley L.

    September 4, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in 2001, immediately I was given high doses of vicodin and flexeril. My pain levels were well treated with OTC pain relievers at the time. Between being given oxycontin (2004) and a 10 day stretch on morphine (2005)it was discovered that I have an “opiate intolerance”. I’ve been on everything from Demerol to Darvocet for pain, they either didn’t work or caused severe allergic reactions. I’ve been on MMJ for about a year, the difference is amazing. I actually have the energy and the drive to do things. The pain relief, the way my muscles feel, it’s almost like being in my 20’s again. The all over generalized pain goes away, I still have pain where knots and spasms have choked off nerves. However, these are diminishing as well as the knots are relaxing.
    On a side note, on the other benefits of pot, my doctor just said that I don’t have asthma anymore.

  3. hdfuller@hotmail.com

    September 4, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Cannabis is the only pain relief medication I will use for the rest of my life. It is also very effective when speeding up recovery from strains, sprains etc. As an Arborist I need to recover as quickly as possible, rest becomes very therapeutic too.

  4. chaz

    September 4, 2014 at 4:37 am

    I have been living with chronic pain for the last 13ys,and have been on opiates of one form or the other ever since my motorcycle accident in 2001 over this period of time my body has become tolerant to opiates to the stage where im now on 120 mills morphine a day plus 4 grammes of paracetamol and 15 MGs of laprazole to stop the nausea the morphine nolonger work at all and is just basically feeding the opiate addiction that iv had for past 13yrs and obviously with such high dosage the withdrawals are horrific if I forget to get my prescription in before I run out of morphine iv tried smoking marijuana for the last few yrs and have found to my surprise that it realy does help alleviate the pain for up to two hours at a time which is bliss for some one like me who literally live with pain every second of the day 24hrs a day 7 days a week 52 weeks of the yr non stop BUT and its a big BUT in the uk where I live its illegal to buy grow even possession is a crime in the UK the government will not allow the opening of any medical marijuana dispensary’s at all in this country which would benefit millions of people suffering with medical conditions but contempary medication is the only way we can get treatment ie using extremely strong opiates to relieve pain this is totally unacceptable behaviour for the uk government not to allow medicinal marijuana to be used by people like myself who knows for a fact that marijuana has no side effects except giving me the munchies which is more than opiates do (they tend to suppress appetite not increase it hence the nausea all the time ) so why wont they legalise marijuana in the uk its simple the government and the pharmaceutical companies would loose too much money as far as they are concerned not thinking forwards as usual the government seem to neglect the fact that they could make millions from taxes alone that the marijuana medication would generate it would also generate new jobs for the increasing unemployment situation in the uk so millions of people would benefit all around in the meantime I have to keep breaking the law just so I can live a relatively normal life with less pain through using marijuana because I cannot safely risk increasing the dosage of the morphine without risking a serious over dose all the time the marijuana alleviates the chronic pain I suffer with I will carry on using it regardless of the possibility of going to jail because im breaking the UK laws

  5. Andy K

    September 4, 2014 at 2:09 am

    I’m neither pro opiate nor pro cannabis. I would like to point out a few things I have discovered for myself throughout my life.
    1. Quote, “The body will build up a tolerance and require higher doses over time, resulting in addiction, illegal drug use and possibly death.” That maybe for any given drug but there are better ways of taking painkillers than pills. Patches, for instance. I use a Buprenorphine 52.5mcg/hr patch. The problems with my spine are both permanent and progressive, so the pain caused by these problems is never going to go away or heal up. I have been on this patch for 10 years a 5 months at the time of writing this. I notice no tolerance building up but AM well and truly addicted to the stuff. The only time this becomes a problem is when I forget to put a new patch on.
    2. Regarding “cannabis pills” or whatever format they would come in. Do people really believe that even if the western world agreed to legalise cannabis for medical use, that it wouldn’t be abused?? There will always be junkies and there will always be addicts. This is not slating people, it is just an unfortunate fact.
    3. The idea of a drug – any drug – working on the part of the brain which “cares / gives a toss” about either being in pain or anticipating pain is a nice one, but once again, general mood can dictate the level of pain felt. A simple for instance would be: You have lost your job, your wife and kids have left you and that night you stub your toe badly. The result of this simple thing can be to see you collapsed in a flood of tears for ages and ages. Now, turn it around to this scenario: You have just discovered and had it confirmed that you have won the lottery. Not necessarily the big time, but a couple of hundred grand. You then stub your toes twice as hard and twice as painfully. You jump about and swear a bit amongst giggles, even laughter and joy at your good fortune.
    Now I fully realise that opiates are no fun. I have a decade+ of living with them, but I am in serious doubts about the claims of how good cannabis can be purely because of it allegedly working on this part of the brain that seems to control how much you care about your pain levels which you’re experiencing.
    Don’t get me wrong, if it helps – GENUINELY helps – you manage your pain and allows a better quality of life, then go for it. But for me, I shall carry on with my patches (Only 1 increase in strength after about 4 or 5 months of use and then staying at that strength for 10 years so far). They don’t kill all the pain, but then they reduce it enough to make more day bearable than not.

    • Glenn M

      September 30, 2014 at 10:16 am

      Andy, Be careful w/ long term buprenorphine. It’s a 10 times better than full against opiates, but there is still hormonal, immune and other side effects. It’s especially wonderful there is no tolerance though, but it’s still poison!! I was on oxycontion and morphine, oxymorphone, etc… for seven years. I got on buprenorphine (Subutex oral) a couple years ago, and am now trying to make the jump to MMJ. So far, so good! i have tapered down to scraps of Subutex. I hope to make the jump in a week or so.

      Subutex left me with no emotions, no desire, no motivation, to sex drive, no any drive!!!

  6. Joe R

    May 13, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Can anyone please let me know who I can speak with about my marijuana allergic reaction? Or atleast that’s what I think it is. I was an avid smoker from 21-26 when something suddenly changed and I started having chest pains, and headaches,a nd my throat would start feeling tight. Now for someone who really has chronic pain, marijuana was my pre-prozac, my pain killer. Only to have this happen. I am 43 now and haven’t smoked in years, instaed I take a heavy narcotic for my pain. I would love to find out if I am truly allergic. Does anyone have any suggestions for me. I truly miss the great pleasure it brought me, and the pain it took away.

    • chaz

      September 4, 2014 at 4:55 am

      I would have a guess that you where experiencing mild panic attacks at least by the few symptoms that you described if you havnt had any further symptoms since you’ve stopped smoking weed you’ve nothing to worry about cannabis can give people panic attacks if they get too stoned I don’t know if you are in the usa or not but generally in America they smoke the weed in joints straight with no tobacco so its obviously a lot stronger smoking it that way in the uk and most European country’s we smoke it with tobacco so its a smoother smoke still strong but not over the top like usa id say to you have a couple of joints see how you go and only smoke when pain is getting too much cos the idea is to elevate the pain but not end up relying solely on the cannabis all day long every day I find it best to have only couple joints during the day and three at night last one just before bed

    • Pammy

      September 5, 2014 at 11:03 pm

      Sounds like you got some moldy smoke.

  7. lynn

    May 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

    I’m a Veteran and have used both. Morphine sucks. I guess till we make the much safer better cannabis legal I’m stuck. Unless I die 1st.

  8. Todd brasseaux

    May 9, 2014 at 9:06 am

    I have muscular disterphy and I see a pain management doctor for my pain I take pain pills because I have to take piss test every month I do smoke after I go to the doctor for the first two days and it helps me so much better then the pain pills I sure wish they would hurry up and make medical cannabis legal in Louisiana I would not have to take them pills that are doing more bad then good with my insides

  9. Josh

    May 7, 2014 at 3:27 am

    This is pretty insignificant to most stories on here, but I’m 19 now with most of my wisdom teeth. While watching my older sister grow up she used to miss school and be in terrible pain sometimes when her wisodom teeth were coming through. Where as the most pain I ever felt was a tingly feeling in my jaw. I never really understood what it was till I was older and realised 1st hand the healing and pain relief properties of this plant! And this was through smoking, its hard to get oils over here in the UK, but I can’t wait till the UK clicks on with how great it is. We usally just copy america anyway haha!

  10. Cecilia

    May 6, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I had pain since I was a small child.. I got into pain pills and heroin… yes they worked as long as you could keep that constantly increasing supply met but life as an addict becomes hell in so many ways….a few years ago I finally got free from the narcotics but not free of the pain…A few months ago. I started taking Rick Simpson oil…It only took a couple weeks before the pain stopped. I take a little in the morning and evening. I also have renewed energy.. I thought at 68 it was just old age but it wasn’t. I feel I have been given a new life..one worth living.

  11. sharni

    May 6, 2014 at 4:52 am

    I am allergic to codeine and tramodol and most pain killers. Causes me itching nausea and vomiting. I took marijuana when I seriously hurt my back and it is the only thing that completely took my pain away, even for an hour. The relief was amazing. My adult kids hated me taking it so I stopped. Now i am in pain 24/7.Again. I am passionate about marijuana medicinal legalisation. I believe my kids are ignorant to the fact that it is an amazing healer and it makes me sad that i have to live in pain to please them.

    • Cecilia

      May 6, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      You don’t have to live in pain…and if your adult kids don’t understand right now I believe they will in time. I hope you won’t wait…I have been using Rick Simpson oil for only about 3 months.. After one month of taking it my life began to change.. I feel like a new person. My pain is gone and I have energy again. It makes life worth living. There are many sites on the subject if your children are interested in learning about the benefits of cannabis. I am a 68 yr. old great Grandma… If others disagree with anything I do, so be it.. Don’t suffer for the ignorance of you children…You say they are adults. They won’t like everything your doing anymore then you agree with all they say and do. We need to take care of ourselves and I feel that is the best example we can give our children…

  12. Ness

    May 5, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Always said cannabis makes the pain easier to deal with, and used in conjunction with opiates has a much more beneficial impact on pain levels than either on their own. However certain pain killers are more effective on certain pain types. I speak from more experience than I’d like when I say that cannabis is incredibly effective on bowel pain caused by spasms but that is not necessarily by impacting the pain, rather than the cause of the pain by stopping the spasms themselves. Opiates, for me personally, have a much greater effect on kidney and adhesion pain. Using cannabis however also allows me to keep the tolerance levels of morphine low and therefore less susceptible to heavy addiction.

    My personal story on the subject…
    http://www.ismokemag.co.uk/cannabis-pain-medication/

  13. Jesse Thunder

    May 5, 2014 at 9:24 am

    I take Percocet 10/325 and am only limited to 120 a month, but I should be getting 240 a month for taking 2 at a time. Stupid restrictions. Percocet does work wonderfully. I have the same disease as Rocky in the Mask film.

  14. DanDanger

    May 5, 2014 at 9:14 am

    As someone who was once addicted to heroin itself. And now using cannabis as “damage prevention” to keep me from relapsing, to keep my pain levels down, to manage my bipolar. All in one medicine. Would I ever take opiates for my pain again? No. And, no. One part is because I am flagged as an opiate/benzodiazapene abuser by the pharmacies/doctors. There is no way in Hell in me walking into any doctor’s office and asking for opiates and them prescribing them to me, without the doctor losing their license. It’s actually that serious. There is a way, that I can use cannabis though. My doctor has completely agreed that me using cannabis for all my ailments instead of medications that I clearly can, and will, become addicted to. And those same medications will definitely harm my mind and body more than a harmless plant ever could do to me in a hundred lifetimes. All it takes it proper dosages, proper strains for your ailment, knowledge on your budtender/dealer’s part, clean extracts and clean smoking accessories/vapourizing accessories. Plus government knowledge is the most important part. If the government acknowledges the fact that, yes, this stuff does help everyone and can make us rich and happy. We will all end up happy. Six plants per adult/per household would be a blessing! Everyone would be growing it, not stealing it, nor would people feel the need to buy it from the government anymore, designated growers would come back out of the woodworks and for collectives, where they could grow up 90something plants. Life would be completely different. We would all see the good in everyone. Everyone!

  15. Paul Pot

    May 5, 2014 at 3:11 am

    Yes, cannabis helps take your mind off pain and opiates do help to actually relieve pain and rest through it. But I believe not all pain is relieved by opiates. Cannabis is very complimentry to opiates and can help reduce the amount of the drug needed for similar effect for whatever desired purpose.

  16. Steve M

    May 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    That 6% statistic is a gross overestimate, which also includes those who purposefully acquired opioids to abuse them (pill mill patients) and pain patients who were cut off from their legitimate prescriptions by pharmacies like Walgreens & states like Florida.

    If you look only at the CP/IP patients who take their medications as prescribed, addiction only occurs in 0.05-0.3% of patients.

  17. Steve M

    May 4, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Sativex (natural cannabis with plenty of THC & CBD as a transmucosal oral spray-similar to a cannabis tincture) will be a great leap forward for pain patients and other medical cannabis users alike. Aside from being legal and covered by insurance, it will be easily measured.

  18. Steve M

    May 4, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Why is it always cannabis OR opioids?

    They work wonders together and cannabis doesn’t help everyone.

    We don’t need more bashing of opioids in the name of advancing cannabis. All opioid side effects wear off over time (except constipation, which is readily managed with Miralax OTC),it’s a function of tolerance.

    Also, (a side note) while THC is helpful, it is important to remember that THC alone is almost worthless for pain relief (otherwise, my Marinol/dronabinol (CIII) would help). High THC is fine, as long as CBD isn’t sacrificed. Also, oral consumption causes rapid, extensive first pass metabolism, which modifies the THC (one of the issues with Marinol/dronabinol when taken as directed).

    I think that the most important thing to remember is that CP/IP (chronic/intractable pain) patients are NOT one size fits all.

    • Haskel

      May 11, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      Like

    • Drew Bright

      May 16, 2014 at 4:03 pm

      As a chronic neuropathy and glaucoma sufferer, I Know that cannabis smoking is the safest, fastest, easiest method of pain relief. Cesamet/Nabilone I’m on helps, but is slow…definitely need the CBDs for maximum effectiveness.HR499 End Federal Prohibition Now!!

  19. Billy Mckee

    May 4, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    I have used anything and everything I could get. From my observations and many others from GreenCross NZ is that the prescribed drugs from the doctors are not worth having even if they are free. Cannabis smoked eaten raw and cooked is good home made opium paste works really well.

  20. kathy marriott

    May 4, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    I have Celiac Disease (no wheat, rye, and barley)…gluten free only. Problem with that is extreme contamination occurs if touched by any of these grains…extreme bloating with intense pain. Nothing helped with the pain or bloating, but after using Cannabis it relieves the bloating instantly, and the pain diminishes right away… Wait… this is starting to sound like a commercial…Anyway… It also helps with my PTSD and other issue I have to deal with. My doctors have prescribed a lot of powerful drugs for me over the years, 8-10 different ones, I’m surprised I haven’t become a pill junkie by now, my mother not so fortunate (RIP). It’s ridicules how much money the drug companies have made off of the people. If I was making that much money I wouldn’t want cannsbis legal either it would take away from my profits. When you finally find something that helps with your suffering, without all the side affects, you want to pursue that and make it a reality. That’s what I’m about…making cannabis a reality, for me and so many other people who are suffering… Peace !

  21. Traci

    May 4, 2014 at 9:32 am

    It also helps for depression and anxiety. Keeps you mire relaxed then jumpy

    • Shicokoto

      May 8, 2014 at 6:05 am

      It make me feel like equal with other pple

  22. meme

    May 4, 2014 at 9:02 am

    I totally agree here. At the end of 2008 I had a horrific knee injury which shredded every ligament. & tendon in my left knee. My knee hyperextended to a 90 degree angle. Hamstring muscle was used to reconstruct all that shredded tissues along with 3 screws and other metal in my knee.
    For years now I’ve used different prescription pain pills from oxy to tramadol and once I started using cannabis oil, my pain is so much less and I don’t deal with the side effects of the drugs. The side effect from cannabis is a plus & very much enjoyed.
    On another note , over the last 4 months , I have made the oil for a cousin who was stage 4 bladder cancer after 4 surgeries & chemo several times within a years time. He is now cancer free after dosing at least 60 gms of oil over a 90 day period.

  23. melody mokwa

    May 4, 2014 at 3:27 am

    I’ve just had hip replacement surgery, and have my oxycontin precription, and am a 57 yr old woman. I’m also a lifelong cannabis user, self-medicating for PTSD. I begged the Ortho Dr. not to give me much detail about what was going to happen, somehow knowing that would MAE IT WORSE. It’s true, the oxycontin’s effects are just like the article describes, and I have stopped taking the meds. I have 42 staples quite a long incision, most of my days for the rest of these two weeks will be spent on my back, leg in the air at the mercy of a husband and son (they do take care), waiting for the day the staples come out, yeah. You better believe only MaryJane is your friend. Emotionally, my worst days were the two I didn’t have her and have to admit to some self-indulgent crying. But I get by with a little help from my friends.

  24. Corey Williams

    May 4, 2014 at 2:51 am

    I love it

  25. Jon

    May 3, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    I was prescribed opiates, time release morphine and oxycontin, after a spinal fusion. I was miserable, couldn’t hold the pills down, and was worried about overdose if I took another to replace what I just rejected. I knew I had gotten enough to make me sick, but did I get enough to not be in pain until time for the next one. I had a trail between the bedroom and bathroom and that was it. I tried cannabis brownies after a couple weeks like that and it not only allowed me to keep the pills down, I began weaning off right then and never refilled either of them. I have been pill free, productive, and as active as my back allows with the help of cannabis, only cannabis, for the last three years, and that is also as I feel my back slowly getting worse. Now, mind you, I was anti-cannabis for most of my life and this really challenged my DARE indoctrination that I believed for so long. My honest opinion now, cannabis prohibition has been a crime against humanity! It is the most natural and wholesome of things and Our government’s war against it is wrong, costly, and disgusting. I just balk at the notion of asking the governments permission through taxation, when I see nothing that authorizes them to control what I consume for food, medicine, or sacrament. Cannabis needs Liberated!

  26. Shicokoto

    May 3, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Marijuana

  27. Karen Cain

    May 3, 2014 at 10:26 am

    I would like to help ohio pass the bill or change the palitcal BS to legal marijuana for medical purpose.

  28. Perry Enfield

    May 3, 2014 at 9:50 am

    I’ve smoked now for about 38 years and the back pain I get is so harsh without pot I would be able to handle it it don’t get rid of it all it just relaxes the pain my back problems consist of doing a 130 foot drop off a cliff in a ninteen eighty pinto and landed upside on boulders the doctors told me I wouldn’t ever work again but with pot it allows me to work

  29. eldon

    May 3, 2014 at 6:47 am

    saw this first hand when my Dad had lung cancer. He was on prescription opiates for pain but still had bad pain in his back lymph node that opiates did nothing to stop. We rubbed cannabis butter onto that spot and the pain would disappear so he could go about comfortably.

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