There may be a role for marijuana to treat addiction, but restrictions keep us from knowing

I’ve dedicated considerable time writing about the addiction epidemic as a blogger and a contributor to the BDN. Currently I’ve been researching medication-assisted treatment, specifically Suboxone. Suboxone is a medication that has been proven to help some people seeking recovery from opioid addiction, but it comes with the community safety side-effect of diversion.

A Suboxone strip. (Ashley L. Conti | BDN)

A Suboxone strip. (Ashley L. Conti | BDN)

Even though I am more likely to be a proponent of alternative treatments for health care, I’ve tried to be open and objective while researching the pros and cons of medication-assisted treatment. There’s no denying Suboxone helps some people, especially in the early stages of recovery. However, there’s no denying that, through diversion, Suboxone can be a problem for communities. I’ve blogged before about how some of the diversion occurs to support people who, for a variety of reasons, may be unable to access legal addiction treatment.

I have anecdotal and personal knowledge of diversion that has happened for both such altruistic reasons and for reasons that were anything but altruistic. This information, along with my research, leads me to believe that policymakers should rethink prescribing and treatment protocols for Suboxone as a part of any proposed expanded access. But that’s not what I want to write about in this post.

Rather it’s about my disappointment when I read a post from a blog called Smart Approaches to Public Health by Scott Gagnon. In this post, Gagnon derides the medicinal marijuana community for wanting to participate in the gamut of treatment modalities for opioid addiction. Apparently Gagnon thinks he should be in charge of what recovery looks like, even though he refrained from actually using the word “recovery” in his post.

But that’s what we want for people isn’t it? Recovery from addiction? Recovery from mental illness? Recovery from chronic pain?

A home pot grower shows some of his marijuana from a previous harvest inside his apartment in Washington. (Astrid Riecken | The Washington Post)

A home pot grower shows some of his marijuana from a previous harvest inside his apartment in Washington. (Astrid Riecken | The Washington Post)

According to Gagnon, that’s not possible if it involves medicinal marijuana or anything derived from the plant. He wrote negatively about the inclusion of post-traumatic stress disorder as an allowed condition for marijuana treatment in Maine.

So to anyone out there feeling content in their recovery or course of treatment for PTSD (or the other myriad of approved chronic health issues) that involves medicinal marijuana or marijuana derivates, Gagnon would have us believe we and our practitioners are wrong in our assessments of our realities. He would have us believe we are victims of an industry whose conduct he deems “egregious and grotesque.”

Gagnon refers to a lack of scientific support for the medicinal use of marijuana. Click here to read an article that undermines the validity of the argument. USA Today, in collaboration with an organization called News21, looked at the government restrictions on this research and the limited funds available once the complex approval process is completed.

Blaming the medical marijuana community for its lack of scientific research is like blaming women for their low participation in government prior to 1920.

Gagnon’s empty arguments aren’t what disappointed me the most, though. His clear animosity toward medicinal marijuana treatments are indicative of an authoritarian construct of recovery and health. Gagnon shouldn’t pass judgments on what my treatment modalities are for any of my conditions any more than I should pass judgments on people seeking medication-assisted treatment for addiction.

Even if I do have a bias toward alternative methodologies, I still shouldn’t judge traditional pharmacological treatments as long as they are legal, administered in a way that is safe for communities, and gets a person where she needs to go to feel whole and productive. Within those parameters, whatever works, works. There but for the grace of God (or fortune or whatever you’d like to call it) go I.

In Maine, though, it’s not legal to find out if any marijuana treatments would be helpful for treating addiction. In testimony before the legislature, I heard Maine marijuana caregivers testifying that they were already treating people for addiction with cannabidiol products successfully, and, if the state allowed, they were willing to participate in scientific studies on their methods.

This kind of research on possible uses of marijuana products needs to happen, so the community can stand on a level playing field with traditional pharmacological interventions in terms of scientific support. Until it does, people like Gagnon get to decide what recovery looks like, a thought that this alternative treatment supporter finds egregious and grotesque.

Gagnon needs to understand that medicinal marijuana is legal in Maine and around the country whether he likes it or not. Even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supports changing restrictions on studies of cannabidiol (CBD), a component of marijauna that can be isolated and has shown effectiveness for many conditions including epilepsy. The marijuana caregivers who testified before the legislature referred to the possible potential of CBD in treating opioid addiction.

Addiction specialists I’ve talked to speak of open-mindedness, individualized care and support as critical elements of communities supporting recoveries. Medication-assisted treatment is one of the tools some treatment providers want the government to support in spite of considerable controversy, and I applaud their efforts if they truly believe it’s in the best interest of their clients. They say the decisions around whether medication-assisted treatment is indicated for an individual should rest with the clinician and the individual.

I applaud the marijuana caregivers for the same reasons, which falls under being open-minded, individualized care-oriented, and supportive about treating addiction. Decisions about whether medicinal marijuana products are indicated are best left to those clients and clinicians, too. If it turns out that CBD can successfully support some people in treatment for addiction, I think we need to know. Science and actual experience should dictate the broad spectrum that defines individual recoveries, not the perceptions of people like Gagnon.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.