Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana could help curb opioid crisis

Could the alternative medicine help folks suffering? 

by Matt Petras

After he injured his back bending over to pick something up 12 years ago, Fred Sammons refused to use opioids. Now, he uses medical marijuana and rarely feels any significant pain.

John Richards, 43, who has three kids and a wife, is on disability and doesn’t work due to sometimes severe stomach pain. He now uses medical marijuana in conjunction with opioids.

Now that legislators have legalized medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, advocates believe the medicine could cut back on the scourge of opioid abuse that has caused Pennsylvania to be among the worst examples of an ongoing national epidemic.

“Opioids, if taken responsibly, they are helpful,” Richards said. “But if they’re not taken responsibly, like any other drug, it is definitely going to do harm and definitely can kill you.”

Studies have already linked implementing lax marijuana laws to decreases in the use of opioids in states around the country. In examining the results of legislation from 2011 to 2016, an April 2 study from Dr. Hefei Wen and Dr. Jason M. Hockenberry, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found a 5.88 percent decrease in the rate of opioid prescribing through Medicaid following medical marijuana legalization. The study also found a higher rate, 6.38 percent, for states with legal recreational marijuana in addition to legal medical marijuana. Essentially, the more the law embraces marijuana, the less people use opioids.

Pennsylvania legislators have legalized medical marijuana use in very specific situations, while recreational marijuana is still prohibited. However, in some parts of the state, such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, marijuana has been decriminalized.

Dr. Bryan Doner serves as the CEO of Compassionate Certification Centers, an organization dedicated to helping individuals start using medical marijuana with more than 20 locations, all in Pennsylvania. They started taking patients in December of 2017, though they had fewer locations then, and patients couldn’t yet buy any medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. Spending time at the Downtown and Butler locations, Doner completes executive duties and sees patients. These patients appreciate the group’s work, according to Doner.


Dr. Bryan Doner. Photo submitted by Compassionate Certification Centers.

“Overwhelmingly it’s been a positive experience, both from the physician standpoint and the patient standpoint,” Doner said by phone. “Most of the patients who come and see us are very appreciative, they’re very hopeful, and this gives them a potential opportunity to treat their disease and process their symptoms that they didn’t have before.”

Suffering from chronic pain and having some relation to opioids is common among CCC’s patients, he said.

“Opiates are not an effective treatment for chronic pain, pain that is ongoing in nature,” Doner said. “If you look at the side effect profile of them, it’s very high. Opiates… also, over time, you will need more and more of that medication to achieve the desired effect. And I think people, obviously, with the opioid epidemic in our country… see that there’s a real risk with these medications.”


Medical marijuana, on the other hand, has few side effects, can’t foster an overdose, doesn’t require escalating doses and can be taken in a variety of forms, he said.

“In my opinion, medical marijuana offers the best alternative, or the best solution, to the opioid epidemic that we’ve seen to date,” Doner said.

Dr. Anu Anand, one of CCC’s doctors, say too many people are on opioids, and believes in medical marijuana as an alternative.

“Most people see [opioids] as their only solution to chronic, long-term pain, when they’ve exhausted other alternatives like surgery and physical therapy,” Anand said by phone.

Even though medical marijuana was made legal for Pennsylvanians in April of 2016, the actual sale of the substance did not begin until mid-February. Sammons, 37, from Kittanning, has been using medical marijuana since then. Meeting with CCC was a positive experience, he said.


Fred Sammons. Photo submitted by Sammons.

“When I got there, they treated me like a family member, not like just a number or money,” Sammons said by phone.

Sammons uses medical marijuana every other day or every other two days, he said, and has used pill and vapor forms. Both work well, according to Sammons – he said vaping is a good option for when he’s off work and pills are good to take before work.

Equipped with his medical marijuana, little parts of the day become easier. Putting on clothes with his chronic lower back pain, for example, was a fuss, but now it’s a breeze. On the field of his daughter’s softball games, however, the improvements in his life feel more stark. He can actually enjoy these games now, because he’s able to sit for long periods of time without great discomfort.

“I would go to my daughter’s softball games and I would have to walk around or stand up, and I would miss half the game because I’d be walking around not paying attention. And it just kind of sucked not being able to watch my daughter play,” Sammons said. “But now I can.”

He never used opioids because he was concerned about getting addicted. Before using legal medical marijuana, Sammons would use street weed to relieve pain. While he cited higher prices than he’d like, he appreciates the safety of legal medical marijuana, he said.

“I don’t care who sees me,” he said, “I don’t have to look over my shoulder no more.”

Richards, who lives in the Philadelphia area, remembers going to the emergency room when he was 18 because his stomach felt horrible. Ever since, he’s dealt with loads of pain. At first, he’d get sick and feel terrible every year, he said. Then it was every six months. Now, it’s more like every two weeks. For years, doctors did not give him a diagnosis, he said, but he has learned that he has an overgrowth of bacteria in his system.

“We call them attacks because I’ll wake up in the morning, and I’ll go to move my bowels, and I’ll just go into this severe pain. I’ll start sweating profusely. It’s hard to explain,” Richards said by phone. “It’s like a throbbing, burning, pulsating pain in my gut… it lasts for hours.”

Over the last 20-some years, Richards has used opioids like hydromorphone, which is sometimes sold by the name Dilaudid, as well as street weed, he said. Now, Richards has his card to receive medical marijuana and uses it in conjunction with opioids. While wary of opioids, Richards currently finds them necessary for himself. By taking them with medical marijuana, he finds he’s decreasing his usage of opioids. He didn’t purchase medical marijuana immediately, though, because he was saving money.


Prices, indeed, are said to be high for medical marijuana. A headline in the Philidelphia Inquirer likens the prices to that of standard big pharma prices. In Pennsylvania, folks are looking at $80-144 a gram, according to the Inquirer article; in two weeks, one person interviewed for the article spent more than $700.

However, according to an April Pittsburgh Post Gazette article, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine has permitted sale of dry leaf and plant medical marijuana for qualifying patients. Additionally, patients suffering from opioid abuse are now eligible for medical marijuana, according to the article.

“We’re so broke because I don’t work… it’s tough, we’re up to our ears in bills and it’s crazy,” Richards said.

John Richards. Photo submitted by Richards.

At home, Richards cooks and cleans to support his family. He has three kids, 10, 13 and 15 years old. To keep himself busy, he likes to toy around with wood-working and play video games.

Living with regular pain can be harrowing, pulling people away from what they want to do with their life. Some who are suffering get roped into an opioid addiction, something that can be fatal. Because marijuana is not physically addictive and can’t lead to overdoses, advocates say it’s a vital option.

After all, nobody wants to be shackled to chronic pain.

“It’s kind of like being in jail,” Richards said of his own experiences.

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