About six months ago, I was asked to speak in Hershey, Penn., about the potential of cannabis to aid in solving the opiate crisis. The conference was for providers of pain management care, and the providers were interested in cannabis because they have seen many patients become highly addicted and unsafe with their use of opiates, with some turning to heroin in desperation.
I gave my spiel about the cannabis replacement of opiates and shared what I had seen In nearly a year of providing substance misuse treatment with the aid of cannabis. The pain management providers listened with curiosity and asked excellent questions. Later that evening at dinner, some of the community leaders lamented the regulations in Pennsylvania and predicted that they years away from being able to use medical cannabis to treat patients. At the time, Pennsylvania had a limited medical cannabis program but didn’t allow for a smokable form, and the system of dispensing it was prohibitive. Fast forward less than a year, and Pennsylvania has become the first state to openly advocate for cannabis as a treatment for opiate dependence.
This says says a few things about the issue. First, it speaks to the existing research about the use of cannabis to replace, reduce, or circumvent opiates. What many have dismissed as “wacky” actually works. Gravity was once a wacky concept too!
The data on cannabis is clear and consistent. States with legal, safe, and accessible cannabis have 25 percent fewer overdose deaths than states that don’t. While causation may not be empirical, it’s eyebrow-raising enough to try. Here’s the beautiful thing about using cannabis: it’s worth a try. Cannabis won’t interact with other medications, so if someone is on another medication specific to treating opiate dependence, they can safely try cannabis as an enhancement or a replacement. It’s a very strange thing that the safest medication is the one that receives the most scrutiny, debate, and pushback. It’s also an indication of just how lost we are with the opiate crisis.
I have given two speeches in Pennsylvania about cannabis. I don’t think I caused the state’s new and progressive policy, but I like to think I helped. One of the biggest frustrations of the doctors I’ve spoken with is that they can’t offer cannabis as an option to patients because of the restrictive policies. At least in Pennsylvania, that seems to be loosening up. The good news is that cannabis policy seems to be a mile wide and paper thin, meaning there’s a domino effect that will have positive outcomes. Other states are sure to follow.
A year and a half ago, I founded High Sobriety — a cage-rattling endeavor that launched slings and arrows at me. I knew they were coming and understood why. That part was fine. Sitting in the status quo and spouting AA slogans as a good little rehab operator was something I chose to not to take part. I instead chose to challenge the status quo.
Part of me feels vindicated and arrogant about the new cannabis laws, but mostly I’m glad that patients now have this option. Cannabis may not be right for any individual, but the decision to try or not is a decision that should be between them and their doctor. It should not be a law enforcement decision.
Remedy Recovery, launching in San Francisco, is a full-service residential operation that offers total medication management and a medicalized approach to managing substance misuse and other mental health issues. Our doctors are experienced and skilled, and they are lifelong learners. They use a variety of medications, including cannabis. Personally, I don’t think cannabis is magic or a solution to the body bags — but I do think it can be a significant aid. Well done, Pennsylvania, for not only living up to the promise of freedom from government oppression, but also kicking it off in the city of brotherly love.