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Strong on sources, weak on data: CBS story on using marijuana for painkiller addictions

Could marijuana help treat painkiller and heroin addiction?

Our Review Summary

iStock_000048592984_SmallThis relatively thorough story discusses a major question: If we can substitute one drug (in this case, marijuana) for others that have a high risk of abuse, especially opioid painkillers. The story relies heavily on anecdotes from those who believe that cannabis can be an effective treatment. While these anecdotal benefits are weighed against the perspectives of outside researchers, we are never given much fine detail of what their actual research shows.

 

Why This Matters

This is very important public health question that needs a thorough discussion in policy circles as well as the media: If marijuana can be safely used, or substituted in people who have opioid or illegal narcotic addictions, is it possible to wean people off these more dangerous drugs?

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The article does a disservice by not mentioning the costs of medical marijuana, even if it is hard to estimate it. If cannabis becomes a major substitute for opioids, the economic implications of this could be huge both for individuals and society.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

There are many mentions of research studies and evidence but very little detail in terms of quantified benefits. Even the mention of the 2014 JAMA study showing that “states with medical marijuana laws had nearly 25 percent fewer opioid-related overdose deaths than those without,” would have been more complete if we’d known what that amounted to in absolute terms. The implications are that a 25% drop in opioid overdoses would be huge, but we’re not really sure.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There are some known or suggested harms of chronic marijuana use, yet there was not much mention of those harms in this story.  The one harm mentioned is a significant one: marijuana also can be addictive.

However, the article didn’t mention others risks of inhaling marijuana, such as lung disease, as well as effects on motivation, and other cognitive issues, especially when the dose isn’t being well controlled when smoked.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

This report included plenty of commentary that suggested caution in interpreting findings from marijuana research in treating opioid-related pain or addiction. Good limitations are mentioned, such as when one interviewee, commenting on the Journal of Pain finding that chronic pain sufferers “reduced their opioid use when using medical pot.”  He added that these findings “were limited because participants self-reported the data.”  This is the kind of nuance that is important to mention.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no obvious disease mongering in this story. Opioid addiction is real and very problematic.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

There sourcing is a strong point for the story. Also, there are no apparent conflicts of interest.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Alternatives were not adequately discussed. There are a wide range of alternatives for pain control other than opioids and marijuana treatment options, such as non-opioid analgesics and physical therapy. Also, the prescription drug Marinol is a medicine with the active ingredient of marijuana (THC) that’s approved to treat the nausea of chemotherapy and for appetite stimulation in HIV patients, and the dosing can be better controlled.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The article adequately discusses that availability varies widely from state to state.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

This story establishes that using marijuana for opioid addiction is a relatively new idea that’s not yet properly understood by medical research.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

Due to the wide range of interviewees quoted, this story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory

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