Could marijuana help treat painkiller and heroin addiction?
The growing number of patients who claim marijuana has helped them drop their painkiller habit has intrigued lawmakers and emboldened advocates. Many are pushing for cannabis as a treatment for the abuse of opioids and illegal narcotics such as heroin, and as an alternative to painkillers.
It’s a tempting sell in New England, hard hit by the painkiller and heroin crisis. But there’s a problem: There is very little research showing marijuana works as a treatment for such addictions.
Advocates argue a growing body of scientific literature supports the idea, pointing to a study in the Journal of Pain this year that found that chronic pain sufferers significantly reduced their opioid use when taking medical cannabis. Another study, published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found cannabis can be effective in treating chronic pain and other ailments.
The research falls short of concluding marijuana helps wean people off opioids – Vicodin, Oxycontin and related painkillers – and heroin, though. Many medical professionals say there’s not enough evidence for them to confidently prescribe it.
In Maine, which is considering adding opioid and heroin addiction to the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana, Michelle Ham said marijuana helped her end a years-long addiction to painkillers prescribed for a bad back and neck. Tired of feeling “like a zombie,” the 37-year-old mother of two decided to quit cold turkey, which she said brought on convulsions and other withdrawal symptoms. Then, a friend mentioned marijuana, which Maine had legalized in 1999 for chronic pain and scores of other medical conditions. Ham gave it a try in 2013 and said the pain is under control and she hasn’t gone back on the opioids.
“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.”
Bolstered by stories like Ham’s, doctors are experimenting with marijuana as an addiction treatment in Massachusetts and California. Supporters in Maine are pushing for its inclusion in qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. Vermonters are making the case for addiction treatment in their push to legalize pot.
Authorities are also desperate to curb a sharp rise in overdoses; Maine saw a 31 percent increase last year, and drug-related deaths in Vermont have jumped 44 percent since 2010. Vermont officials also blame opioid abuse for a 40 percent increase over the past two years of children in state custody.
“I don’t think it’s a cure for everybody,” said Maine Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat and a leader in the state effort to legalize marijuana. “But why take a solution off the table when people are telling us and physicians are telling us that it’s working?”
Most states with medical marijuana allow it for a list of qualifying conditions. Getting on that list is crucial and has resulted in a tug of war in many states, including several in which veterans have been unsuccessful in getting post-traumatic stress disorder approved for marijuana treatment.
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