The solution to the nation's opioid epidemic could be as close as your friendly neighborhood cannabis dispensary, says a California startup company of physicians specializing in online consultations. In fact, cannabis already shows success in treating opioid or alcohol addiction, the doctors say.
"I've seen cannabis help with pain, anxiety, insomnia, migraines and depression," says Dr. Perry Solomon, a 64-year-old Bay Area anesthesiologist and chief medical officer of HelloMD, an online clearinghouse where patients can get advice, read articles on cannabis effectiveness in treating medical conditions and secure a medical marijuana recommendation. "Using cannabis as an alternative to opioids should be looked at everywhere."
Opioids, Solomon says, are best used to fight acute pain from a temporary medical condition — think broken ankle or dental surgery. But he firmly believes that throughout the United States, doctors are wrongly prescribing opioids for chronic pain. More than 65,000 Americans died of opioid overdose in 2016, making opioid addiction — not cancer or heart disease — America's No. 1 killer.
But Solomon has a plan to help patients kick their deadly opioid addiction: Use marijuana, not pills, to fight chronic pain.
He presented that idea a few months ago at a 2017 Harvard University seminar full of doctors curious about cannabis. Many told Solomon they attended specifically because their patients wanted to know if marijuana could help wean them off opioids.
To Solomon, the packed room indicated how ignorant his fellow physicians are about pot. Most had never been taught anything about cannabis in medical school.
They can't sell an idea they know nothing about, he says.
"If someone stops their chemotherapy and replaces it with cannabis," Solomon says, "they're doing themselves a disservice. But there are medically sound reasons to recommend cannabis for certain patients, and opioid addiction is one of them."
Four years ago, Pamela Hadfield and her husband, Mark, realized it was too difficult for non-physicians to find sound medical research about pot. The couple decided to fill that void by founding HelloMD, which she says is the "largest online community of health and wellness for the cannabis curious."
The curious can visit HelloMD and read scientific studies, ask questions via online chat and maybe feel comfortable enough to try cannabis, Hadfield says. Would-be patients can request a "tele-health evaluation" from one of several doctors who offer pot prescriptions for almost any affliction. Just make sure you live in California or New York, the only states where online health evaluations for marijuana are legal.
"I suffered from migraine headaches for 25 years and used Vicodin [an opioid] to combat it," Hadfield says. "I felt dependent on Vicodin and that's why I then tried marijuana. I was resistant, but in the four years I have been using cannabis, I have not had a migraine. People are finding that cannabis is far more effective in dealing with chronic pain."
HelloMD conducted a landmark study with UC Berkeley this past year with more than 3,000 patients. The study indicated that 97 percent “strongly agreed/agreed” that they could decrease their opioid use for chronic pain when using cannabis.
Last May, HelloMD's M. Zimmerman wrote a story about how people were kicking heroin by using cannabis. Zimmerman also pointed to a 2014 study published in JAMA, the American Medical Association journal, that found a 25 percent drop in opioid overdose deaths in states that have legalized medical marijuana. The study looked at all 50 states between 1999 and 2010 and came to the conclusion that cannabis showed great promise as an alternative to opioids.
Writer Jean McKinney posted a Jan. 24 story on HelloMD.com stating cannabis could help people stop, or reduce, their alcohol use. The late psychiatrist and marijuana advocate Tod Mikuriya of UC Berkeley conducted a 2004 study of 92 patients for whom he had prescribed marijuana as a treatment for alcohol abuse, according to McKinney.
A majority of the people in Mikuriya's study group reported having emotional or physical health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, arthritis, glaucoma, bipolar disorder, traumatic brain injury or chronic pain from a number of causes. Almost half acknowledged they were using alcohol as a way to cope with these conditions.
When study participants used cannabis rather than alcohol, many reported that their symptoms improved, Mikuriya said in his study. They had less need for alcohol and reported an improved quality of life, without the complications caused by alcohol such as aggression, poor judgment or trouble with law enforcement. When they stopped using cannabis, their symptoms returned — and so did the desire to drink, he reported.
Mikuriya observed that people frequently use alcohol to relieve emotional or physical pain — and that cannabis has well-documented benefits for treating both those things, along with the symptoms of all the conditions experienced by the patients in his study. For those reasons, he concluded, cannabis could be an effective and generally safe substitute for alcohol use.
Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, owner and operator of Uplifting Health & Wellness Total Health Care in Natick, Massachusetts, was a panelist with HelloMD's Solomon at the Harvard seminar last year. She's not officially associated with HelloMD but preaches from the same pulpit by trying to change the stigma related to cannabis while addressing opioid addiction. Each patient in pain who comes through her clinic hears about cannabis as an alternative to opioids.
A family doctor and cannabinoid medicine specialist certified by the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine in California, Dhanabalan has a master's degree in public health from Harvard.
She was not a cannabis believer, she says, until her mother was diagnosed with lung disease and she witnessed first-hand how cannabis provided her mother pain relief.
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Now she believes cannabis is the can-do drug.
"Cannabis is not an entrance drug like we've been taught to believe," Dhanabalan says. "Cannabis is an exit drug for getting off of pharmaceutical narcotics, alcohol and I'm adding in nicotine. Opioids and alcohol kill. Cannabis saves lives.
"It's blatantly criminal for the United States to continue to list marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug (like opioids)," she says. "We have no research showing cannabis is harmful. It's no longer ignorance on the part of politicians. It's pure arrogance."
[Editor's note: Pamela Hadfield is not a doctor; she was misidentified as one. Also, the HelloMD/UC Berkeley study was mischaracterized. We regret the errors.]