Prescription Drugs vs. Cannabis: Recent Studies

There is a recent surge in the debate surrounding medical marijuana vs. prescription drugs. In the United States, marijuana has been a Schedule 1 controlled substance since the 1970s due to the belief that this plant is ‘highly addictive’ and offers ‘no medical value.’ Based on the legalization of medical marijuana in a significant majority of states, this is clearly an outdated statement.

In contrast, prescription medications are everywhere, and many of them are dangerous. Alongside the adverse side effects, prescription drugs are also expensive, and prices continue to rise. It’s thought that the average American spends over $1,100 on prescriptions annually, with total annual expenditures in the USA exceeding $600 billion.

It’s true that prescription medications have their place. That said, it’s common to think that drugs are too readily prescribed, especially considering the addictive nature of drugs like opioids. In some cases, these prescriptions can be deadly.

As the tide of public opinion turns, evidence shows that medical marijuana could be a realistic alternative to prescription drugs. This article covers some of the most influential studies to date.

Is Marijuana Better Than Prescription Drugs? Research Report

It’s difficult to say which is better out of the two for definite; it depends on the individual, the ailment that needs treating, and many other factors. For many minor issues and disorders that regularly make the list of qualifying conditions for MMJ, it is often argued that marijuana is better than prescription drugs. However, this may not be true for everyone.

There was a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Pain Research that made this suggestion. The study looked at marijuana compared to other drugs, mainly where painkillers are concerned. The researchers surveyed over 2700 individuals who used cannabis in the last 90 days, finding that 46% used marijuana as a substitute for prescription drugs. Moreover, 35.8% of them were replacing opioids.

Research so far is suggesting that patients could well prefer cannabis to prescription drugs.

While this study did not investigate the efficacy of marijuana for treating medical conditions, it did discover that many patients prefer using cannabis. The Harm Reduction Journal reinforced these findings in another research report, suggesting that 59% of survey respondents who mentioned opioids explicitly reported total cessation of use. In other words, using cannabis helped them quit opioids.

The question of whether marijuana is better than prescription drugs is dependent on the specific medical condition and patient in question, but research so far suggests that patients could well prefer cannabis.

Below is some more information on how marijuana could specifically help patients.

Marijuana vs. Painkillers: Treating the Symptom vs. the Disease

One of the significant issues associated with prescription drugs is the fact that they only treat symptoms. In contrast, there is a suggestion that cannabis can ease the condition’s actual cause(s). To date, more than 110 cannabinoids have been found in marijuana. These are compounds that act with our endocannabinoid system, or ECS.

The ECS, discovered in 1992, regulates an array of the body’s functions, including appetite, mood, pain response, sleep, and more. Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD mimic the chemical behavior and makeup of endocannabinoids. They can interact with the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) found throughout the central nervous system, immune system, and brain. Cannabinoids regulate neurotransmitter release when interacting with the CB1 and CB2 receptors and thus help manage pain levels.

In contrast, opioids act on the brain’s opioid receptors to stimulate feelings of euphoria and pleasure. These drugs are designed to share a chemical structure similar to the brain’s natural transmitters. Rather than promoting lasting relief, opioids mask the pain, so there is no healing process taking place. Moreover, opioids are extremely addictive—to the point where many individuals are now using marijuana to wean themselves off painkillers.

Marijuana Could Help You Escape the Deadly Grip of Opioids

A 2015 joint study by the Icahn School of Medicine and Scripps Research Institute looked at the impact of cannabis on opioid users. Researchers found that marijuana activates a class of neurotransmitters in the brain that “modulates the rewarding effects of addictive drugs.”

Cannabinoid receptors are found in areas of the brain that control reward and pleasure; when there is a dysfunction in that part of the brain, cannabis sends a message to cells, telling them to stop looking for drugs. In other words, marijuana helps break the drug-seeking message.

Another study* by researchers at the University of Georgia and published in the journal Internal Medicine (April 2018) looked at opioid usage among those who began using marijuana. In states with medical marijuana dispensaries, there was a 14% reduction in opioid use over five years.

Furthermore, a 2014 study* by Bachhuber et al. concluded that in 13 states where medical marijuana was legalized between 1999-2010, there was an incredible 25% decrease in the number of deaths attributed to opioid overdose. The researchers estimated that legal weed saved over 1,700 lives in these 13 states in 2010 alone.

Prescription Drugs Increase Violence

Those who rally against cannabis always claim that it increases the rate of crime. However, most marijuana-related crimes are due to the federally illegal status of the drug itself. For example, in Nebraska, there has been an increase in unlawful weed sales as the herb is brought in from Colorado. This is because marijuana is legal in Colorado but not in the Cornhusker State.

In reality, it is the prescription drugs peddled by Big Pharma that do most of the damage. According to research published in PLOS, for example, people between the ages of 15-24 in Sweden who took SSRIs, a form of antidepressant, were more likely to be convicted of violent crimes such as sex offenses and murder than individuals in the same age group who were not on any kind of prescription medication.

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Also, FDA data found that Americans who took antidepressants were more likely to commit violent crimes. In fact, violence related to prescription drugs is now tracked by law enforcement in every American state, although these medications are perfectly legal to use if prescribed by a doctor.

Marijuana vs. Painkillers: Weed Has Far Fewer Side Effects

Those who fight against marijuana often claim that smokers will go crazy (Reefer Madness-style) after consuming weed. Marijuana can indeed cause side effects such as paranoia and anxiety, primarily if you use high-THC varieties.

However, the harmful effects of marijuana pale compared to the list of possible adverse effects of prescription drugs. Even the official ads for Big Pharma drugs list potential side effects that scroll down the screen; the list can be as long as the credits in a big-budget Hollywood movie.


In fact, research published by Cheat Sheet showed an extraordinary number of possible side effects associated with some of the most popular prescription drugs on the market. The resource makes for particularly horrifying reading; for instance, Vasotec, which is prescribed for cardiovascular problems, can cause dangerously low blood pressure and liver dysfunction.

Meanwhile, Xanax, the famed anti-anxiety drug, is notoriously addictive and can result in death from overdose. In contrast, marijuana, also used for anxiety, has never caused an overdose in recorded history and is far less addictive.

What Are the Main Reasons Why Medical Marijuana Is Better Than Prescription Drugs?

There are multiple reasons why proponents argue that medical marijuana is better than prescription drugs. Below are seven common arguments in favor of medical cannabis.

1. It Has the Potential to Replace Harmful Opioids

As mentioned above, it’s possible that medical marijuana could replace opioids. Not only are studies showing that cannabis is a powerful pain reliever, but there is also evidence that individuals could use it to wean themselves off opioids. A number of scientific reviews are showing that those with opioid use disorder are finding success by using cannabis to cut harmful painkillers out of their lives.

2. Fewer Adverse Side Effects

Secondly, there are few side effects of cannabis in comparison to medications like opioids. Between 50-80% of opioid users experience at least one side effect. Common side effects include respiratory depression, which can lead to death.

The risk of addiction is also, of course, a problematic side effect of opioids. In contrast, the WHO states that cannabis has a low potential for abuse in comparison to other drugs.

3. It Can Benefit Senior Citizens in Numerous Ways

In a 2020 blog post, Harvard authors talked about the increased use of marijuana among seniors. They noted that there are some potential risks to this and stated that there has been a decrease in stigma.

With medical marijuana touted as a potential for pain and inflammation, sleep, and anxiety, it could be a handy tool for older adults. There are plenty of other potential reasons to use cannabis, too, which makes cannabis something worth discussing for senior citizens.

Given that marijuana may be better than prescription drugs in some of their side effects, it’s certainly worth a shot.

4. It’s Easy to Tailor the Dose

There are now numerous consumption methods for cannabis, be it smoking a joint, using an edible, or even drinking cannabis coffee. With hundreds of strains available to choose from, it’s really easy to adjust the effects. Staff in dispensaries can usually point patients in the right direction when it comes to choosing a strain with the right strength, as well as advising on consumption methods.

In contrast, prescription medications can sometimes take a more one-size-fits-all approach. Pills typically contain a set amount, and while there is some wiggle room, pharmaceuticals, on the whole, are less tailored to the individual.

5. It Provides Holistic Benefits

There are many motivations for people to use medical marijuana. Qualifying condition lists can be long, showing just how much MMJ could be capable of. As a result, those who use marijuana may feel that they are taking a more holistic approach to health rather than consuming a drug that does just one thing.

6. There Are Many Ways to Take Cannabis

As also stated above, cannabis can be taken in numerous ways. Individuals can opt for edibles, smokables and vapes, beverages, topicals, inhalers, and more. The range is only expanding, too, giving consumers more choice than ever.

With pharmaceuticals, patients are very limited in how they take drugs. Big Pharma creates and approves just one or two consumption methods, leaving customers stuck. The opposite is true of cannabis – it is a much more patient-focused experience in which the individual can choose what works best.

7. It’s a Personalized Experience Where You Have a Say

Summarizing the above, medical marijuana can feel a lot more personal. As a result of getting to choose how and when they consume cannabis, MMJ patients may feel that the treatment is more effective. This is why so many people are surrendering opioids for medical cannabis, finding that the latter is so versatile that they can take it in a way that doesn’t affect the rest of their lives.

As a result of getting to choose how and when they consume cannabis, MMJ patients may feel that the treatment is more effective.

Instead of being told what to take and when to take it, medical marijuana consumers get a say in their own treatment plan.

Five Medical Conditions You Could Potentially Treat with Cannabis

Pharmaceutical drug addiction is at an all-time high across America. According to the CDC, 70% of adults aged 40–79 used at least one prescription drug in the last 30 days. Incredibly, up to 20% of people in this demographic used five prescription drugs. It is no surprise to learn that the American pharmaceutical industry is the biggest in the world.

The prohibition of marijuana means it is difficult to find detailed research on using it to treat various conditions. However, the studies to date show promise. Perhaps in a few years, medical professionals could discover extensive evidence of weed’s efficacy for specific conditions. Below are five ailments where cannabis could help.

1. Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system. It affects around 3.4 million Americans, or 1.2% of the population. The condition is challenging to live with. It is often unpredictable and has a considerable impact on the individual’s daily life. Epilepsy is categorized by convulsions, loss of consciousness, and seizures.

Studies have shown that very few current epilepsy medications successfully suppress seizures. Indeed, these drugs often lead to adverse effects that can cause further distress to the patient. There is a strong possibility that marijuana’s safety profile is superior to that of most pharmaceutical drugs. Once again, more scientific evidence is required to strengthen this claim.

Fewer adverse effects are one of the primary reasons for using weed, according to its proponents. Epilepsy is one of the best-researched conditions concerning marijuana. It could reduce seizures more effectively than pharma drugs, with less severe adverse effects.

Cannabis as a Treatment for Epilepsy

Cannabis studies often look at conditions such as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) and Dravet syndrome. Both are predominantly found in children. One of the main symptoms is a vast number of debilitating seizures.

The cannabinoid CBD appears to have the most significant promise. Cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating compound found in hemp and marijuana. As such, it is potentially a suitable treatment for children.

A study by Thiele et al., published in Epilepsia in March 2019, looked at how CBD affected Lennox-Gastaut syndrome patients. They received 100mg of highly purified Epidiolex. This pharmaceutical drug is the only CBD product approved by the FDA.

The researchers titrated the dose from 2.5mg/kg to 20mg/kg per day across two weeks. All but two of the 368 patients completed the study. A total of 88% of patients/caregivers reported an improvement in the overall condition of the patient. The median reduction in seizures ranged from 48% to 57% over 12 weeks. The most common side effect was diarrhea.

2. Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects around 400,000 Americans. Interestingly, the Multiple Sclerosis Society has addressed the use of the herb as a possible treatment. In particular, the focus is on the use of CBD in MS patients. The MSS says that around 20% of MS sufferers use cannabis to treat their condition. This figure is likely to increase as various states lift their restrictions.

Multiple sclerosis is highly unpredictable. It happens when the body’s immune system attacks the fibers of the central nervous system. Those who have MS tend to suffer from chronic pain throughout the body. Other symptoms include muscle spasms, dizziness, balance problems, and weakness or fatigue.

Cannabis as a Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis

Conventional treatments for MS include pharmaceutical drugs and physiotherapy. Once again, Big Pharma does little to aid the patient, and drugs often have a slew of side effects. The possible anti-inflammatory properties of marijuana could help MS patients, however. Potential positive effects include a dramatic reduction in stiffness and spasms.

It seems as if cannabis could combat inflammation of neural tissue, which occurs in MS sufferers. It may also aid in digestive issues and depression, two widespread side effects of MS.

A study by Frenchin-Mallada, published in Neurodegenerative Disease Management in June 2018, looked at how THC could aid MS patients. The Spanish researcher evaluated the evolution in the activities of daily living (ADL) in MS patients. The patients used Sativex, an FDA-approved oromucosal spray that contains THC and CBD. Overall, almost 97% of patients reported a positive change in ADL across 32 months.

3. Anxiety

Anxiety is a blanket term that describes feelings of worry, nervousness, and tension. While it is reasonable to feel these things occasionally, it becomes a problem if the individual’s life is spent feeling this way. There are multiple types of anxiety disorders, including GAD, PTSD, OCD, and phobic anxiety disorders.

Cannabis as a Treatment for Anxiety

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recently released data on anxiety disorders. It said that up to 18% of American adults have one. Treatment options include medication, therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation. Anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants have the usual array of side effects.

This is why countless Americans now turn to cannabis as an alternative. The belief is that marijuana can help relax the body and mind. Turna et al. conducted a survey that looked at weed use behaviors and the prevalence of anxiety and depressive symptoms. The research was featured in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in April 2019. The Canadian team found that marijuana was potentially useful for anxiety disorders. Users also stated that they didn’t feel an inability to control their usage.

4. Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is an incredibly difficult and sometimes debilitating condition to live with. It is often overlooked as a serious medical condition due to its long-lasting nature. Furthermore, it is difficult to attribute to a specific injury or disease in many cases.

It is a prevalent condition, however. This is mainly reflected in the dramatic increase in opioid use since 1999. A shocking 47,600 people died from an opioid overdose in 2018. Could marijuana provide benefits without the risk of overdosing?

Cannabis as a Treatment for Chronic Pain

Like epilepsy, there is ample research into cannabis’s effect on chronic pain. Marijuana could reduce inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is a common cause of chronic pain.

Dr. Donald Abrams, Chief of Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, backs cannabis as a potential treatment. He said:

“Given the safety profile of cannabis compared to opioids, cannabis appears to be far safer.”

A study by Boehnke et al., published in Health Affairs (Project Hope) in February 2019, looked at the qualifying conditions of MMJ license holders in the US. The researchers found that 65% of medical marijuana patients use the herb to combat pain.

Furthermore, a study by Palmieri et al., published in the International Journal of Pharmacy Practice in June 2019, looked at Bedrocan’s effect on pain. Bedrocan is a general cannabis preparation. The Italian study gave 20 patients the oil twice a day for three months.

From baseline to six months after treatment, the researchers found a reduction in pain among the patients. They concluded that marijuana is “potentially therapeutically effective and safe for the symptomatic treatment” of certain chronic diseases.

5. Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is an incredibly unpleasant condition. It affects the intestines, causing severe inflammation, which can cause debilitating side effects.

Often discussed alongside inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), 780,000 Americans suffer from the condition. Typical symptoms of Crohn’s are:

  • Severe constipation
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Bloody stools
  • Fever
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fatigue

There is much we are yet to understand about this condition. However, we know that the most apparent trigger is the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. This often leads to further complications over time due to the body’s inability to absorb vital nutrients.

Cannabis as a Treatment for Crohn’s Disease

Once again, marijuana’s possible anti-inflammatory effects are useful. The herb is a common option for many digestive problems, from IBD and IBS to Crohn’s. Traditional treatments for the condition aim to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system.

However, the apparent side effects of these are often unbearable. With a consistently weak immune system, patients become vulnerable to a whole host of diseases! Cannabis could offer anti-inflammatory traits, with none of the risks that current treatments pose.

A study by Mbachi et al., published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences in October 2019, looked at marijuana use and complications related to Crohn’s. Researchers compared 615 marijuana users to those who did not use weed. The research team concluded that marijuana use could mitigate several of the best-known complications of the disease.

Final Thoughts: Marijuana vs. Prescription Drugs

In the end, research clearly illustrates the dangers of prescription medication while simultaneously extolling the virtues of medical marijuana. As weed is still federally illegal (though available recreationally and medically in many states), scientists face a major barrier when trying to conduct further research, but as the public grows to realize the benefits of weed and the dangers of Big Pharma’s drugs, we hope that common sense will prevail.

Not only is weed nowhere near as addictive as prescription drugs like Xanax and fentanyl, but it is also actually used to wean people off opioids.

There are hundreds of people dying from opioid overdoses on a weekly basis, while no one perishes due to marijuana. While opioids treat the symptom, they do nothing to combat the disease. Not only is weed nowhere near as addictive as prescription drugs like Xanax and Fentanyl, but it is also actually used to wean people off opioids. Cannabis advocates now have science on their side, so let’s see if knowledge truly does provide us with power.

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