Last week, the Centers for Disease Control quietly changed course on a decades-old rule. Previously, people in pain who needed long-term pain killers were always tested for drugs as part of the diagnostic process. Now the CDC is saying to leave marijuana out of the picture.
Those who need opioids as maintenance medication should still be tested for hard drugs, the CDC said, but not cannabis. According to the CDC report, the marijuana urine test is notoriously unreliable, and marijuana use is not problematic in the context of the need for prescription painkillers.
This is incredible news for women. This isn’t about teenagers smoking a doobie in the back of the Mystery Mobile, or burnouts at a Grateful Dead cover band show. It’s about destigmatizing a mild intoxicant that many women use for pain management on its own.
Women are far more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain. More than 50 million American women experience daily pain that is so debilitating that they cannot function without narcotics or other relief. Despite those odds, women are far more likely to be turned away from doctors when they seek help for conditions like arthritis, autoimmune disorders, or migraines.
In particular, women of color are overlooked by doctors when they are in need of pain management. Studies show that women of color are more likely to be perceived as drug addicts or hysterical fakers. This leads to frustration and depression and often an inability to work for those who suffer.
The CDC’s new recommendation removes an unnecessary barrier to care for women in pain. Some women may have medical marijuana prescriptions that they use to manage pain or other conditions. Other women might self medicate for anxiety or discomfort. Still others might be among the 20% of false positives given by the urine screening test for cannabinoids.
As states decriminalize marijuana and approve its use recreationally or medically, it’s important to women that doctors and other healthcare providers keep up with these developments. It’s also essential to society as a whole that we do whatever we can to ensure women can access the medical care they need.
Ending marijuana testing for pain sufferers means fewer patients will hide their pot use from doctors, and may even open up a conversation about healthier habits. Ending stigma is never a bad thing.
Even if you don’t approve of marijuana use or legalization, this is a step in the right direction. Doctors should be advised to treat their patients fairly and should be given the discretion they need to provide prescriptions for painkillers, even to patients who don’t follow the letter of the law.