In a world where prescription painkiller addiction has reached an all-time high and opioids are destroying lives, doctors and patients are looking for an alternative to the madness. The highly addictive properties of opioids have many wondering: Is there a better way?
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The answer is yes. For nearly 100 years doctors have been testing the efficacy of the common cannabis herb for pain management, and the results are astonishing.
Pain is the No. 1 reason people seek medical care, and pain relief is big business for pharmaceutical companies. Suffering with chronic pain seriously impacts the overall quality of life of people everywhere, and many are willing to do anything in order to be free from it. For years people experiencing chronic pain have relied on pills in an attempt to maintain a state of normalcy, but these medications are not free of harmful side effects. Using opioid-based products on a long-term basis can cause severe health problems such as constipation, grogginess, nausea, depression, and, in some cases, even death.
In 24 states plus the District of Columbia, patients have the option to forego addictive drugs and try a treatment that is not only effective, but superior when it comes to long-term pain management. By simply adding cannabis to their regimen, many patients are naturally decreasing their reliance on opioids—or discontinuing them altogether! Recent research has shed light on the synergistic nature of cannabinoids and opioids, that they complement one another’s effects. So, it only makes sense for the two to share a degree of interchangeability. Cannabis is widely considered not physically addictive, and that is a major step forward for those who solely want relief and nothing more.
Kill the pills
With a growing number of patients claiming cannabis has helped them drop their painkiller habit, lawmakers are intrigued. Some states are looking to add opioid addiction to the list of acceptable ailments for medical cannabis use. In a nation where the abuse of pain pills is skyrocketing and heroin addiction is rampant, advocates are demanding more research in the fight for patients’ right to choose.
A growing body of scientific literature supports the replacement of opioids with cannabinoids. A study in the Journal of Pain published this year found that chronic pain sufferers significantly reduced their reliance on prescription painkillers when using cannabis as an alternative.
In Maine, which is one of the states considering adding heroin and opioid addiction to the list of conditions that qualify for a medical cannabis recommendation, Michelle Ham speaks openly about how simply altering her regimen helped her kick an addiction that lasted years. The 37-year-old mother of two was tired of feeling “like a zombie” and decided to quit pain pills cold turkey. This brought on convulsions and other withdrawal symptoms that made life unbearable. (These symptoms are famously absent in those who suddenly stop consuming cannabis.) A friend suggested cannabis, which Maine had legalized in 1999 for chronic pain and other medical conditions. She hopped on the herbal express in 2013 and hasn’t gone back to opioids since.
A higher quality of life
“Before, I couldn’t even function. I couldn’t get anything done,” Ham said. “Now, I actually organize volunteers, and we have a donations center to help the needy.”
Stories like these have doctors experimenting with cannabis as a treatment for addiction in Massachusetts and California. Supporters across the country are pushing to make addiction a qualifying condition for cannabis therapy, and Vermont has incorporated this benefit into their push for legalization. Can you imagine a world where people no longer have to give in to harsh treatments for pain and can simply opt for an herbal edible?
A major increase in heroin overdoses and drug-related deaths nationwide has occurred since 2010. Authorities are anxiously seeking a solution—even though one has been staring them in the face for centuries. While this treatment may not be for everybody, shouldn’t it at least be an option? Maine Rep. Diane Russell asks the $420,000 question:
“Why take a solution off the table when people are telling us and physicians are telling us that it’s working?”
Some states have already altered their laws to include opioid addiction in their medical cannabis protocol, but other states are still locked in a “drug-of-war” over the issue. “It’s hard to argue against anecdotal evidence when you are in the middle of a crisis,” said Patricia Hymanson, a Maine neurologist who has taken a leave of absence from practice to serve in the state House. “But if you do too many things too fast, you are sometimes left with problems on the other end.”
Wait. Does she mean problems worse than dying? In New Hampshire, drug deaths doubled last year, yet the Senate rejected the concept of decriminalizing cannabis. It seems fitting here to remind all doctors that the Hippocratic Oath begins: “First, do no harm.”
The opioid epidemic has a solution. In time the benefits of cannabis will be routinely incorporated into the daily treatment regimens of patients with addiction and chronic pain issues. But, right now, patients and their families are wondering: How many more people have to die in order for lawmakers to open their eyes?
A 2014 JAMA study shows that states with approved medical cannabis use had nearly 25 percent less opioid-related overdose deaths. “We are in the midst of a serious problem. People are dying, and, as a result, we ought to use things that are proven to be effective,” said Dr. Richard Saitz, chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. There are two sides to every story; while most testimonials are self-reported, there is concrete evidence in other areas regarding opioid addiction and cannabis.
A study by Rand Corp. found that states with cannabis dispensaries saw an immediate reduction in admission to treatment centers for opioid dependence and overall abuse. Some doctors are stepping to the forefront and going against the grain in the fight for patients’ rights. Dr. Gary Witman, of Canna Care Docs, has openly treated addicts with cannabis in his offices in Massachusetts. He began offering this treatment in September 2015, and since then, 15 patients have successfully kicked their opioid addiction without relapse.
“When I see them in a six-month follow-up, they are much more focused,” Witman said. “They have greater respect. They feel better about themselves. Most important, I’m able to get them back to gainful employment.”
In a perfect world everyone would have a choice in whether they wanted to use harmful and addictive pain medications or a non-toxic, all-natural remedy like cannabis. With time, and dedicated supporters committed to cannabis freedom fighting for everyone’s rights, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
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