Pubdate: Wed, 27 Apr 2016
Source: New Mexican, The (Santa Fe, NM)
Copyright: 2016 The Associated Press
Author: Michael Casey, The Associated Press


CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - The growing number of patients who claim 
marijuana helped them drop their painkiller habit has intrigued 
lawmakers and emboldened advocates, who are pushing for cannabis as a 
treatment for the abuse of opioids and illegal narcotics like heroin, 
as well as an alternative to painkillers.

It's a tempting sell in New England, hard hit by the painkiller and 
heroin crisis, with a problem: There is very little research showing 
marijuana works as a treatment for the addiction.

Advocates argue a growing body of scientific literature supports the 
idea, pointing to a study in the Journal of Pain this year that found 
chronic pain sufferers significantly reduced their opioid use when 
taking medical cannabis. And a study published last year in the 
Journal of the American Medical Association found cannabis can be 
effective in treating chronic pain and other ailments.

But the research falls short of concluding marijuana helps wean 
people off opioids - Vicodin, Oxycontin and related painkillers - and 
heroin, and many medical professionals say it's not enough 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 pot helped her end a yearslong addiction to painkillers she 
took 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 legalized in 1999 for 
chronic pain and scores of other medical conditions. She 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, and 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 drugrelated 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.

"It's hard to argue against anecdotal evidence when you are in the 
middle of a crisis," said Patricia Hymanson, a York, Maine, 
neurologist who has taken a leave of absence 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."

In New Hampshire, where drug deaths more than doubled last year from 
2011 levels, the Senate last week rejected efforts to decriminalize marijuana.

There are some promising findings involving rats and one 2014 JAMA 
study showing that states with medical marijuana laws had nearly 25 
percent fewer opioid-related overdose deaths than those without, but 
even a co-author on that study said it would be wrong to use the 
findings to make the case for cannabis as a treatment option.

"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, chairman of the Department of Community Health 
Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Cannabis could have limited benefits as a treatment alternative, said 
Harvard Medical School's Dr. Kevin Hill, who last year authored the 
JAMA study that found benefits in using medical marijuana to treat 
chronic pain, neuropathic pain and spasticity related to multiple 
sclerosis. But he urged caution.

"If you are thinking about using cannabis as opposed to using opioids 
for chronic pain, then I do think the evidence does support it," he 
said. "However, I think one place where sometimes cannabis advocates 
go too far is when they talk about using cannabis to treat opioid addiction."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom