Our community understands many types of pain.
Acquiring, possessing, and consuming marijuana has, metaphorically speaking, long been a painful process. Throughout most of its modern American history, weed of any kind was typically hard to get, illegal to have, and, to some degree, risky to use. After all, without a regulated marketplace, random dealers off the street could be selling you anything — if they weren’t narcs. Depending on where you live and what you look like, the criminal and social consequences associated with the cannabis plant have been unjustly harsh and pervasive. Much healing remains.
Pain in the physical sense is just as relatable and tangible, maybe more so, but comes from a different source. Bodily injury and illness are usually responsible, but no one should be blamed for either seeking pain relief or preferring an alternative to opioids to do so.
As you might expect, more research on the pain-relieving effects of medical marijuana is needed. At present, however, just enough empirical and anecdotal evidence exists that points to weed being an effective pain reliever.
Relieving Whose Pain?
The cannabis community is as diverse and inclusive as any you’ll ever find because cannabis users are anything but a monolith. They represent every demographic in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, location, gender identity, age, religion, socioeconomic status, dietary choice, political affiliation, etc. Society and the world at large keep trying to find ways to divide us, but the marijuana plant works even harder to bring us together.
Exploring why people use it adds another layer of depth and complexity to our community’s cannabis consumption. Understandably, our first instinct is to think of recreational marijuana — the unfortunate linchpin of weed’s misconstrued and misunderstood reputation — and all the fun and enjoyment it entails. Recreational weed is that cultural bridge that people burn regularly, often together, for their pleasure.
However, not all cannabis is used strictly for pleasure, and getting caught up in its recreational aspects overlooks an integral and sizable segment of the community: medical cannabis users. They are the undisputed pioneers of the legalized cannabis movement and the OGs of frontline cannabis advocacy. Keep in mind that, starting with California in 1996, state medical marijuana laws have been on the books for over two and a half decades (compared to recreational legislation which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year), and roughly three-quarters of U.S. states have them. Who do you suppose was the catalyst for that?
Not Always Mixing Business with Pleasure
We should recognize not only medical cannabis users’ role in fighting for compassionate use and medicinal legitimacy but also their unique relationship to cannabis itself. While it’s true that some recreational users are also (or became) medical users, the reverse is not necessarily true.
For some, medical marijuana use is their first exposure ever to THC and CBD. With no prior experience or frame of reference, these individuals may be embarrassed about their use of weed and cannabis-based medicines, despite the latter’s efficacy and superiority over other pain-relieving options.
First-time medical users may also fall into the category of people who have experienced marijuana in a limited recreational capacity but didn’t enjoy it. Now, due to severe pain, they find themselves using it again, and perhaps begrudgingly so. Whether or not they’re able to morally come to terms with their use, they view medical cannabis strictly as a treatment option, not something they would use if perfectly healthy. For them, the business of pain relief far outweighs any incidental pleasure they might derive from weed.
We Also Fight for Them
No matter where they appear on the medical cannabis use spectrum or whatever inner conflicts might lurk underneath, these are users for whom we empathize tremendously and with whom we’re working diligently to forge relationships.
The stigma that newcomers to medical marijuana may feel is very real. It might even be enough to make them think twice about — or outright reject — a treatment regimen that could potentially reap enormous pain-relieving dividends. Someone could certainly feel a heavy burden accepting the use of a drug that the federal government deems illicit and illegal, and whose criminal penalties have been unreasonably severe.
It’s also no coincidence that older generations are more susceptible to internalizing that stigma, as they were the ones most heavily indoctrinated against cannabis during their youth. Our grandparents have not only lived most of their lives without a viable medical marijuana option but have also been raised to believe weed was evil.
Pain Is and Always Will Be the Greater Evil
While the origins of physical pain are not always clear, two universal principles have consistently defined it: everyone will experience it at some point during their lives (and to varying degrees), and some forms of it cannot be cured.
When both principles apply, framing the solution as “pain relief” or “pain management” depends largely on whether we’re talking about acute pain or chronic pain. The former is what we’re all familiar with, which is related to a specific event that we can point to as the direct cause of our pain. Pain signals serve as the primary symptoms to alert us to our wound or illness, and then last only as long as the particular illness does, or until the wound heals (typically not to exceed six months). Pain relief, therefore, is often achievable.
Common examples of acute pain include muscle strains, surgical pain, and traumatic pain (i.e., broken bones, cuts, and burns). The level of pain need not be severe and, when it isn’t, is often only temporary. And because we also feel it immediately in most cases, it’s easily remembered as a “retrace-your-steps” kind of pain.
If Only Dr. Dre Could Give Us Chronic Pain Relief
Despite being a well-respected doctor and supplying us with his triple-platinum album The Chronic almost 30 years ago, legendary rapper Dr. Dre hasn’t invented a cure for chronic pain. Hopefully, that’s the “Next Episode” of his career.
In fairness to the medical community, no person or organization has yet found a way to completely eradicate chronic pain, which is characterized by its duration and, in many cases, its incurability. Like its acute counterpart, chronic pain can be severe but doesn’t always have to be to qualify for this label.
However, even a mild but persistent source of discomfort (generally three-plus months past the time of normal healing) could eventually seem severe in a patient’s mind, especially if it never fully goes away. What’s more, living in constant pain can wreak havoc on someone’s social life, relationships, and overall mental health. The non-physical repercussions of chronic pain can thoroughly decimate those who suffer from it without a strong and supportive community around them.
To be effective, chronic pain management must be guided by the long view and a realistic prognosis for how to treat pain. That means understanding from the start that it may never truly subside, and that all measures taken only temporarily relieve chronic pain. In the end, the goal is to at least have less pain, if not zero.
Who’s Affected by Chronic Pain?
The short answer is too many. According to recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 50 million Americans — or slightly more than 20% of the total U.S. population in 2016 — reported having chronic pain, and 8% of them had high-impact chronic pain that interfered with an important life activity.
The CDC also states that chronic pain is the number one reason people seek medical care. It follows logically that pain management makes up a significant portion of both the nation’s healthcare system and clinical pharmacology industry. Remember that pain is only a signal or symptom (sometimes imprecise at that) of disease or injury, but is not itself the disease. Prompted by such pain, the millions who enlist professional help are possibly being diagnosed with medical conditions — some with grave outcomes — they never would’ve predicted they could get. AIDS patients and those suffering from cancer pain come to mind.
Causes of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain may result from the same causes as acute pain — i.e., an isolated incident — but if the former is what follows, that’s usually a sign of nerve damage or some other type of permanent damage. For example, someone involved in a car crash could soon after develop chronic musculoskeletal pain stemming from spinal cord injury suffered in the accident. A person’s cancer-related pain could also begin as acute but morph into chronic depending on the stage of cancer.
But as chronic pain patients know, their experience isn’t always determined by a singular external force. Other leading causes of chronic pain include debilitating conditions that manifest with age (such as Parkinson’s disease), as well as autoimmune disorders (multiple sclerosis, migraine pain, joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis, chronic neuropathic pain, nerve pain from fibromyalgia, etc.).
Autoimmune disorders have no cure, and thus the chronic pain episodes they cause are similarly incurable. As mentioned earlier, when we can’t relieve pain, we must exhaust all available means to treat pain. With that in mind, a practical pain management plan will vary from patient to patient and inevitably be some unique combination of an effective pain reliever along with that person’s pain tolerance.
Whatever We Can Do to Achieve Decreased Opiate Medication Use
Drug abuse is a genuine concern when discussing long-term pain control and the therapeutic implications of narcotic drugs. With no foreseeable stoppage date, coupled with their highly addictive nature, the question then becomes how often treatment should be administered.
Do we wait until the patient’s chronic pain is sufficiently and objectively severe? Or until they begin to experience withdrawal symptoms (at which point they’ve likely developed dependence)? Do we combine non-prescription drugs in concert with opioids? The ultimate objective of chronic pain management is to not inflict more damage with “solutions” than the original problem already has.
The country’s current opioid crisis is, however, doing exactly that. Death from overdose is widespread and wholly preventable, and lives that aren’t lost are instead mired in the hopeless slough of addiction to prescription drugs.
There has to be a better way, right? We think you know what’s coming next.
Medical Marijuana Is the Answer
Our purpose is not to push conspiracy theories, but it stands to reason that “Big Pharma,” a.k.a. the pharmaceutical industry, would lose billions of dollars when cannabis use is legalized at the federal level. Even now, state medical marijuana laws already cut into Big Pharma’s bottom line, and the Controlled Substances Act serves as its last line of defense to not only more lost profits but also further advanced research into the pain-relieving properties of marijuana plants.
Having medical cannabis programs in all 50 states can positively impact the opioid epidemic by decreasing, if not altogether eliminating, people’s reliance on other medications to relieve pain. THC and CBD have well-documented histories of being effective for a host of medical conditions. Used together, a well-balanced formula of both can be a powerful weapon against chronic pain — and with minimal negative effects.
The World Health Organization reports that approximately 2.5 percent of the global population uses cannabis annually. With millions of us suffering from chronic pain and progressive legislation steadily becoming the norm in our states, perhaps American participation can bump that percentage up to an “eighth?”