In need of re-leaf

Is marijuana a gateway drug?

By Sarah Sidlow

“Yeah, marijuana is a gateway drug…” Blue Ash City Council member and Ohio Patient Network Executive Director Rob Ryan told me in a recent conversation, “a gateway off of opioids.”

In fact, the potential for marijuana as a treatment for opiate addiction is a primary focus of Ohio Patient Network and other medical marijuana advocates aiming to curb the record-breaking opioid abuse trend in Ohio.

The argument in favor of using marijuana as a means to address opiate use and abuse is pretty straightforward. First, many of the effects of marijuana (appetite, anti-nausea, anti-anxiety, anti-tremor) match the effects patients and physicians seek when taking and prescribing opioids. Some patients are able to switch from an opioid prescription to a marijuana prescription with little change other than a decrease in unwanted side effects. Second, many of those same marijuana effects position it as a natural fit against the effects of opiate withdrawal (loss of appetite, nausea, anxiety, tremors). In these cases, many patients are able to wean themselves off of opioids altogether.

The states that have already legalized medical marijuana have been able to serve as testing grounds on the theory of marijuana as opiate/addiction treatment. In many of those states, researchers have discovered a decline in opioid abuse.

Here’s some even easier math: last year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that in 2015, 33,000 Americans died from prescription painkillers and heroin overdoses and zero died from cannabis.

In another report last year, the National Academy of Sciences said never mind to the “gateway drug” theory that D.A.R.E. pounded into our brains and instead presented some evidence of the health benefits of cannabis.

Yet, there are some who aren’t completely on board with the idea of counteracting one dangerous drug with, well, another drug—a drug some, like AG Jeff Sessions, deem nearly as “awful” as heroin (it is, after all, still a Schedule 1 drug, in the ranks of heroin and LSD).

While marijuana supporters in the science and health communities are firm in their assertions that marijuana is non-addictive, opponents argue that the potential does still exist, particularly in populations that have proven to struggle with addiction in the past.

Moreover, some research contradicts assertions regarding the benefits of cannabis treatment, claiming it can, in some cases, pose a risk for psychosis and schizophrenia.

And then there are those who say marijuana treatments won’t keep addicts off the streets—patients with legitimate need for pain relief or addiction help but without the ability to pay for a medical marijuana card or transportation to a dispensary. And without addressing that population, many will likely still turn to the streets for cheaper opioids or other harmful options.

 

Reach Dayton City Paper debate moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Dayton City Paper Commentary Forum Question of the Week:

Should marijuana be used to help solve the opioid epidemic?

 

The blunt truth

Marijuana eases the symptoms of opioid withdrawal

By Ben Tomkins

The presence of marijuana on the federal government’s Schedule I list of drugs indicates just how apathetic and willfully mindless our national legislators can be when they apply themselves. According to its own website, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists the criteria for being a Schedule I drug as follows:

“Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

It then lists some “examples” of Schedule I drugs, and heroin and marijuana are almost right next to each other. To fully grasp the extremity of this idiocy requires nothing more than a few minutes of research into what various branches of the federal government are actually doing relative to heroin and marijuana.

The FDA is actively sponsoring research into the medical efficacy of marijuana, and the NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) is currently overseeing the production of all cannabis for the University of Mississippi. As of 2016, the FDA isn’t even pretending that marijuana doesn’t have medical value. As one could guess, there are no such clinical trials being conducted for heroin, and my tiny mind simply can’t fathom why that might be. Regardless, when it comes to marijuana, the government at-large seems to be resting on the soft, downy cushion of inaction that is provided when the inability of human beings to know anything with 100 percent accuracy is coupled with the drudgeries of dealing with American bureaucracy. When given the opportunity to stick with an off-white lie and the status quo, or trying to toss it into the mix when we have issues like Syria, it’s a little tough to blame them.

Of course, they could just put it to a national vote. The 28 states (plus D.C.) that currently allow legal marijuana in the face of government restrictions represent a majority that would have been nearly filibuster-proof had they been approving Supreme Court justices. It is also important to recognize that many of them (New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Ohio) have severe heroin problems. Does this mean that marijuana is a “gateway” drug, as Jeff Sessions asserts?

Of course not. The research elements of his own support organizations don’t even believe that. It is precisely the fact that they are not related that makes the conversation embarrassing because if, instead of linking them together as equally noxious affronts to the human condition, derivatives of marijuana were used as medicine to help alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal from opioids, some very good things might come of it.

It is entirely true that many symptoms of opioid withdrawal can be combatted by marijuana use, and it is well known to be effective as a painkiller. Moreover, this doesn’t require sitting around smoking weed and destroying your lungs. The applications of medical marijuana for children come in the form of carefully extracted and quality-controlled oils, not rolled paper, and many adults use them in lieu of smoking as well.

Medical marijuana is not some hippie conspiracy to legalize weed in the name of freedom, but this problem does bring up a legitimate point. Many psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors say that self-medication is a big problem in the medical industry. There are many, many people who quit taking their prescribed medication in a relative vacuum in favor of getting high all day, and while this anti-scientific process may produce some good outcomes for individuals (at least, according to them), without some kind of data to back it up there’s no way to know if they are putting themselves at serious risk in the future.

However, while technically the jury is still out on marijuana and the treatment of opioid addiction, there are only one or two on the panel who are hanging the jury. Intransigent individuals like our attorney general aren’t doing anyone any favors by squatting over the issue like a bad dog despite the information that’s coming from the medical industry and researchers. We should be pro-people, and if something might be good for the community at large, we should be open to the possibility and pursue it honestly and fairly. We would want the same done for us if the situation was reversed, and in the case of marijuana and opioid addiction, it doesn’t even require the majority of states to change their laws.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit HillofAthens.com. Reach him at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

The devil you know

It’s time to ‘just say yes’ to marijuana

By Tim Walker

Call it the lesser of two evils if you must, but more and more medical professionals and addiction specialists are touting marijuana as a possible route to curing and otherwise avoiding opioid addiction. I applaud this enlightened attitude. Marijuana, a widely available and useful substance that has been illegal in this country for far too long, has a large number of potential benefits attractive to people at risk for substance abuse of highly addictive drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and other opiate derivatives.

The outdated opinions and laws that keep the possession and use of marijuana a federal crime—and which make the study of marijuana’s medical uses difficult—need to be changed or jettisoned. Surgeon Dr. James Feeney has been conducting a self-funded study at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The trials compare the benefits of using marijuana versus opiates when treating patients with acute pain, the sort of pain that might come from a broken rib.

“The big focus from my standpoint,” says Dr. Feeney, “is that this is an attempt to end the opioid epidemic.” While the final results are not in, the doctor’s team states that the preliminary data is encouraging.

Critics, of course, say otherwise. “But this is wrong,” they scream. “You’re simply giving people one illegal drug to replace another one—this is madness! Where does it all end? How can you hope to solve one drug crisis by substituting it with another?”

I admit that our nation’s drug problem does not lend itself to simple solutions. I’m suggesting that our outdated, conservative ways of thinking will need to change in order to get this crisis under control, save lives, and protect the future for our younger generations.

Marijuana is currently classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, which means that, in the opinion of the Drug Enforcement Administration, marijuana has no accepted medical purpose, is highly addictive, and has a high potential for abuse. Other drugs considered to be Schedule I by the DEA include heroin and peyote, for God’s sake. (Cocaine, surprisingly, is a Schedule 2 drug because it can be used for medical purposes in some instances).

Nationwide, it has been estimated that 1.4 million patients in 28 different states and the District of Columbia currently use legal medical marijuana to treat a widely diverse list of conditions, which include chronic pain, seizures, and insomnia. A much smaller number of patients in 16 states, many of them children, have found success using a limited extract of the plant—usually cannabinoid or CBD oil, which contains no THC and therefore cannot make you “high”—primarily to treat seizure disorders. With statistics such as these, can there be any argument that the federal government needs to reclassify marijuana out of the Schedule I class of controlled substances? No accepted medical purpose? Seriously?

In the midst of our country’s widespread, deadly opioid crisis, many medical practitioners and researchers are convinced that greater use of marijuana by patients for pain relief could result in fewer people using the highly addictive prescription painkillers that led to the current, nightmare drug epidemic situation. A 2016 study by researchers at John Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health found that states with medical marijuana laws had 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths than states that do not have legal medical marijuana. And another study, published in Health Affairs a few years ago, found that prescriptions for opioid painkillers paid for by Medicare, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet, dropped substantially in states that have legalized the use of medical marijuana.

The figures speak for themselves. Ohio Governor John Kasich recently signed a bill that will limit the state’s physicians from prescribing opiates to patients for more than a week’s duration in almost all cases following surgical procedures. For children, the new law is even harsher—no more than five days on opiates following surgery. If our state—and the country as a whole—does not embrace marijuana as a treatment for acute and chronic pain, then you will have more and more patients reaching out to street drugs in order to keep their pain at manageable levels.

Marijuana helps. Marijuana will help the sick and the injured manage their pain levels and will enable them to recuperate more comfortably or improve quality of life. Our politicians’ demonization of the substance is serving no purpose other than to keep our prisons full and keep people hooked on opiates.

It is time for a change. When it comes to pot, it’s time for us to all to grow up.

Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach him at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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