Anna was supposed to spend her 50th birthday dancing with friends, not laid up in bed. The Texas grandmother was only 49 when she suffered from a stroke in her spine, a rare, sudden condition that can leave its victims paralyzed without warning.
That was five years ago. Now, Anna can stand and walk slowly with the aid of a walker, but otherwise she is mostly confined to a wheelchair, she tells ConsumerAffairs. As she began her recovery and adjusted to her new life, doctors put Anna on a daily regimen of hydrocodone pills. The prescription drugs relaxed her muscles and controlled clonus, a series of involuntary
muscle spasms caused by her spinal injury. “My leg starts jumping like I’m going to a hoedown,” she says.
The pills worked at stopping the spasms, but Anna didn’t like taking them. Throughout her life, she says she abstained from taking pills or drinking alcohol, instead preferring to use marijuana recreationally. So in 2014, two years after suffering the life-altering stroke, Anna naturally worked
in a visit to a dispensary while visiting her daughter in weed-friendly Colorado. Anna explained her symptoms, and the local doctor gave her a selection of products that were lower in THC and higher in CBD, or the non-psychoactive component of cannabis thought to have more medicinal
The visit, Anna says, marked a new beginning in her medicine routine. Now, she uses marijuana whenever the clonus returns, and says it seems to control the spasms by relaxing her muscles. She has never had to take hydrocodone pills again, she says. Though she is still living in Texas, where even legal, medical marijuana is difficult for patients to get if they want to follow the law, Anna finds a supply through her own channels. She never noticed any negative side effects from the prescription pills, but she is relieved to be free from them. “I don’t like taking pills at all,” she explains.
The medicinal benefits of cannabis for many specific medical issues -- spinal cord injuries or opioid dependence are just two of many conditions whose patients may benefit from cannabis -- are not all well studied or understood. But the anecdotal evidence from patients like Anna, who did not want her last name printed, is slowly gaining support from university research and even the federal government.
Feds see cannabis as potential treatment for opioid abuse
The federal government’s website for the National Institute on Drug Abuse in April 2017 updated its page on marijuana to describe several recent studies that found a trend between access to marijuana and decreased opioid use. “Medical marijuana products may have a role in reducing the use of opioids needed to control pain,” DrugAbuse.gov now states. The site
MassRoots first noted and reported on the change on Monday.
A record amount of Americans are now hooked on opioids, and overdoses from heroin, fentanyl or a number of prescription opioids killed an estimated 33,000 people here in 2015. Recently-confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, meanwhile, has remained adamant despite the evidence that softening federal laws against marijuana will not curb America's opioid epidemic.
“I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana -- so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful,” Sessions famously told reporters in March.
Medical weed linked to less opioid addicts in the hospital
In fact, research published just several weeks after Sessions made that claim found that opioid overdoses may actually be decreasing with the legalization of marijuana.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego aimed to study hospitalization rates in the 28 states that have legalized marijuana, because “its impacts on severe health consequences such as hospitalizations remain unknown.” But the researchers did not find an epidemic of marijuana-related hospitalizations in their research. They found the opposite.
While hospitals continue to see an enormous amount of opioid overdose and opioid addiction cases, the researchers found that opioid dependency-related hospitalizations decreased by 23 percent in states where medical marijuana is legal, and that opioid overdose cases decreased by 13 percent in those same states.“Medical marijuana policies were significantly associated with reduced OPR-related hospitalizations,” or opioid-related hospitalizations, the researchers concluded, “but had no associations
with marijuana-related hospitalizations.”
"This study and a few others provided some evidence regarding the potential positive benefits of legalizing marijuana to reduce opioid use and abuse, but they are still preliminary," the lead researcher later explained to NBC.
Marijuana and Medicare savings
Another recent study, cited on the the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse website, used Medicare data to track the effect that medical marijuana had on the use of pills, including opioids.
Overall, access to medical marijuana corresponded with an estimated $165.2 million in savings on prescription drugs, as the federal government acknowledges.
Patients who credit medical marijuana with improving their quality of life still face hurdles, even in states where recreational or medicinal possession of cannabis is legal. Because cannabis remains illegal under federal law, employers are still allowed to drug test employees and fire those who test positive for cannabis, which is known to stay in a person’s system well after ingestion and after the psychoactive effects have worn off.
Telecommunications giant Dish, for example, seven years ago fired telephone technician Brandon Coats from their Colorado offices after he failed a drug test. Coats, a quadriplegic, similarly said that cannabis controlled the muscle spasms he suffered as a result of his spinal injury. He filed a high-profile lawsuit that ended several years ago in Dish’s favor, with the judges saying that Dish and Dish’s employment policies were protected because of federal regulations classifying cannabis as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. Since getting fired for failing a drug test, Coats has been unable to find a steady job in his field since then, he told ConsumerAffairs last month.