Let doctors treat addiction with medical marijuana

I attended a hearing at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday and wanted to share some brief thoughts. I’ve been following the movement to allow prescribers to treat addiction to opiates and other drugs with medical marijuana. This hearing was in response to a petition put forth by Dawson Julia of Unity requesting that the department do so.

Because the hearing room was too small to allow all the attendees in at once, people had to come and go throughout the five hours allotted, and it was hard to gauge exactly how many people were there. I would say more than 50 but less than 100. DHHS staff did a great job escorting folks in and out of the room and allowed each speaker five minutes. The staff person coordinating the flow of attendees told me she had never had so many people come to a petition hearing in her experience.

At first, I spent some time outside talking among the dozens waiting to be let into the room, and I should have taken pics, but it was drizzly and cold, and my old lady fingers can’t work the little buttons on my mom’s little camera once they catch a chill so, sorry — no pics. One of the young men I met, though, appeared on Channel 8 News — click here to see him on video — named Matt Low. Low told me he’s been through a series of attempting to quit opiates, relapsing each time.

Like so many others who testified at the hearing, Low started with prescription medications. By the time he stopped using again a few months ago, he was using four grams of heroin/fentanyl a day. Low said he started his recovery cold turkey this time. After a few days of utter mental and physical desperation, he reached out to someone in the medical marijuana community who specialized in concentrated cannabis products.

In my interviews and in the testimony, people in recovery with cannabis have said concentrates — medical marijuana products with higher levels of the THC and/or CBD components of the plant — have been critical during the immediate withdrawal phase. These people have been able to access marijuana legally for conditions other than addiction and say it helped them come off opiates and other addictive medications.

Low said the caregiver with whom he works (and someone I’ve met writing this series) is providing more than just marijuana products. Low says Dennis Hammoc of Milo instills other recovery tenets in their time together, like purpose. Low says he feels purposeful for the first time in years, and, “For the first time, I feel hope. The other times I tried to quit I didn’t.”

I had too many great conversations to include here, but I did want to highlight a conversation I had with a home health-care professional who works with geriatric clients. Stacy Briggs, a former Coast Guard helicopter mechanic who became a CNA, is continuing her education/certification because she loves working with seniors. Briggs is concerned that seniors are being overlooked in the talk of addiction and other negative side effects from long-term opiate use, and spoke articulately about a couple cases where she thought the over-prescribing of opiates and sleep aids contributed to the deterioration of her clients’ health, behavior and basic safety.

One of those seniors, she said, decided to get certified to use medical marijuana products and was able to cut her use of pain medications by half within a few weeks and is continuing to decrease the amount of pain medications she is taking. Briggs said the client’s cognition and behavior improved almost immediately.

Once in the room, I was able to listen to about three hours of testimony. Some of the folks I’ve been interviewing attended the entire meeting and said only three people had testified against the petition prior to me getting there. I heard another three, including Scott Gagnon who rights the blog Smart Approaches to Public Health, and lawyer Gordon Smith, representing the Maine Medical Association.

As for those testifying against, I have two observations. First, they were all professionals. To the best of my knowledge, not one person in recovery from a substance use disorder testified against the petition.

I didn’t hear anyone stand up and say, “My name is so and so. I am in recovery from such and such, and I think this proposal is dangerous because…”

All the people I heard testifying in favor of the petition were actually in recovery from something or speaking on behalf of someone in recovery. Father after father testified about getting their children back or being better. Parents publicly acknowledging their failures when on opiates and other drugs.

There were also professionals working with people in recovery testifying in favor of the petition, including at least two Maine Medical Association physicians, as Smith observed when he testified in opposition, which brings me to my other observation. The three people I heard testifying against the petition kept bringing up the lack of science behind the proposal, implying it could be dangerous to rely on anecdotal evidence, rather than science.

This argument is problematic because there is some science, and there would be more science were it not for government restrictions. Further, where were all the calls for sound science when it came to the push to use opiates to treat chronic pain longterm — a big part of how we got into this addiction epidemic?

I heard person after person testify about starting their addictions with prescription pain medications.

If there was science behind that push, then that science made people sick. The makers of Oxycontin are paying the state of Kentucky $24 million for the fallout from its marketing practices, presumably based on science. It’s not hard to understand why some of the attendees weren’t feeling the love for the call for science — it did ring a little hollow.

As Smith dismissed their experiences as anecdotal and lacking in significance enough to warrant supporting the petition, he did at least acknowledge that the folks testifying were “sincere.” That he used that word bothered me.

The folks who testified that they had began their addictions following medication regimens prescribed by medical professionals were sincere in their testimony. They were also sincere when they first went to medical professionals to have their conditions treated and were sincere in doing what their doctors told them to do.

Unfortunately, their sincerity and their trust in the medical community led to substance use disorders. I wish Smith had talked about his association’s role in betraying that sincerity. Then I wish he had spoken to his association’s sincerity in trying to control how people clean up the mess members of his association had a hand in making. Without those two qualifying statements, what Smith did say just didn’t sound that sincere to me.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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