Pain won't kill you, but pain medicine will.
In 1853, Alexander Wood, a physician in Scotland, administered the first intravenous drug. The drug was morphine and the idea was, that by injecting the drug directly into the vein and bypassing the mouth, the drug would be less addictive. Alexander Wood also became the first person to die from overdosing on an injectable drug. Nonetheless, by the late 1800s, physicians were dispensing hypodermic needles and instructing patients in their use. By the year 1900, 300,000 Americans were addicted to morphine.
When the dangerously addictive nature of morphine was realized, Bayer Pharmaceuticals believed they had the answer. They had recently developed aspirin through the acetylation of salicylic acid and believed that the same process could be used for morphine to make it safer. Their new product, heroin, was wildly popular. At the time, aspirin required a prescription, while heroin was sold over the counter as a remedy for colds, headaches, pneumonia. It was also lauded as a safe treatment for morphine addiction. The history of medicine is the history of killing people with good intentions. Eli Lily, working with Bayer, began promoting the drug as safe for children, infants, and pregnant women.
By 1924, heroin was illegal. In 1950, chemists once again thought they had developed a safe derivative of the poppy plant and synthesized thebaine, sold under the name Oxycodone. by 2001, Purdue pharmaceuticals had made 1.45 billion dollars on Oxycodone, the highest profit ever made on a single pharmaceutical.
Right now, narcotics are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. After the drug company sponsored trial of the 90’s were discredited, no unbiased study has ever shown a long term benefit to chronic opioid use whatsoever.
As a physician in the emergency room, I am fortunate to be able to treat pain with narcotics when they are needed. Traumatic injuries require pain relief. However, I rarely, if ever, prescribe narcotics any more. In Oregon, where I did medical marijuana work, many of my patients were trying to get off of narcotics and their doctor would not grant them the required paperwork to try marijuana instead, despite the know dangers of narcotic and the safety of cannabis.
The states that have medical or recreational marijuana programs have 25% fewer narcotic deaths per year. This means that the availability of marijuana saves 10-15 American lives a day. It’s time we shunned narcotics for anything beside acute severe pain and learned how best to use marijuana for long term pain control. No one has ever died from an isolated overdose of marijuana. Ever.
Our current situation, where doctors somehow feel more comfortable prescribing narcotics than permitting the use of cannabis is a bizarre and deadly result of the power of large pharmaceutical companies to create studies to support their products.
(if you are interested in more information on the history of narcotics, Paul Offit’s book, “Pandora’s Lab” is excellent)