Could Medical Marijuana Solve the Opioid Crisis?

*Originally published on RYOT.org on October 13th, 2015 by Sean Sawyer*

A chain of clinics in Massachusetts is trying an alternative way to help opioid addicts overcome their addiction — using marijuana. Canna Care Docs are treating their opioid addicted patients with medical marijuana.

“We have a statewide epidemic of opioid deaths,” said Dr. Gary Witman of Canna Care Docs. “As soon as we can get people off opioids to a nonaddicting substance — and medicinal marijuana is nonaddicting — I think it would dramatically impact the number of opioid deaths.”

After administering medical marijuana to 80 patients, Dr. Witman found that about 75% of these patients stopped using hard drugs all together. Doctors that are administering medical marijuana to opioid addicts recognize that being addicted to a chemical that alters your body is not ideal, but they also recognize the fact that marijuana does not kill.

“You are basically taking something that can be very harmful for an individual, and substituting with another chemical, just like you would any other drug, that has a wider safety margin,” Dr. Harold Altvater of Delta 9 Medical Consulting said. “So if the goal is to decrease the body count … the goal would be to get them onto a chemical that was safer.”

Massachusetts is currently going through an opioid crisis and is searching for ways to overcome opioid addiction and opioid related deaths. 

In 2014, the total opioid related deaths exceeded 1,000 deaths a sharp 33% increase from just two years before in 2012, according to the Massachusetts Department of Health.

opioid-related-deaths

(Courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

The crisis became so severe that one town in Massachusetts started the Angel program in March. The Angel program would grant amnesty to anyone willing to trade in their drugs for counseling. And by August, 109 addicts used the Angel program with 80% under the age of 30. One in 6 of these people were from out of state, and all had entered into some sort of detox counseling programs.

Some questioned the constitutionality of the program while others feared that it was a scam run by the police. Similarly, the medical marijuana alternative has seen some criticism from other doctors in Massachusetts.

“I am not a doctor, but coming from someone who is on the front lines with people we are burying every week, adding another drug into the mix is probably a bad idea,” Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn to Cope which provides support groups for addicts said. “They are already a zombie on the opiates, do they have to be a zombie on pot?”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker oversaw a bill that passed the Massachusetts House last week that would increase funding to address the substance abuse crisis and also fund recovery homes and counselors at a higher rate.

“The really good news on all of this … is there is a tremendous amount of action and activity and commitment to doing some things, some more things, to help the Commonwealth and its citizens deal with this epidemic,” Governor Baker said.

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