CINCINNATI (AP) — Leanne Barbee says she spent much of her adulthood treating her chronic illnesses with opioids. Desperate to kick those drugs, the Newark, Ohio woman turned to marijuana five years ago, and today, “I am a whole different person.”
“My entire family was completely opposed to marijuana before they found out what a difference it made in my life,” said Barbee, 37. “I’m not this long-haired hippie person. I’m a mom of a college student. I have a house and two dogs. I’m your average, typical cannabis consumer.”
Barbee and other advocates of Ohio’s coming medical-marijuana program say they hope to enlist the drug not just to help individuals avoid opioids for pain treatment but to break the addiction epidemic’s hold on the Buckeye State.
“It’s a great idea,” said Dr. Will Sawyer of Sharonville, who is certified to recommend medical marijuana. “The trick here is not to be afraid. It’s just another tool in the toolkit.”
Ohio’s medical-marijuana program is scheduled to begin Sept. 8, but growing and processing are behind schedule, so the product will not be available until later this year. Ohioans with at least one of 21 qualifying conditions can obtain a doctor’s recommendation to purchase marijuana at state-licensed dispensaries.
Opioid addiction is not one of Ohio’s qualifying conditions. But it could become one, perhaps as soon as later this year.
This summer, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania became the first of the 31 states with medical marijuana programs to allow doctors to treat opioid use with medical marijuana. The Ohio Patient Network, an advocacy organization, intends to ask the state to add it when the list is reviewed in November.
“It’s absolutely a lifesaver,” said Rob Ryan, the group’s executive director. “It’s a safer alternative to opioids. . I’m not going to say all patients, because all is a very powerful word. But a lot of patients can find they can use a whole lot less opiates if they’re using medical marijuana.”
Northside resident Chris Berger, a Cincinnati accountant, said he used opioids and alcohol to treat pain for years. After years of addiction, he got some marijuana from a friend two years ago, and, “It completely changed my life.”
“I take care of myself, as far as health goes, in ways I didn’t before,” he said. “I eat healthfully. I’ve lost weight. I exercise. I have really good relationships with my family, with my extended family, and I’d had almost no relationships with them.”
“This has to be a better alternative than when I was addicted to narcotics and drinking,” Berger said. “There is a real social cost to opiates.”
But people who are not crazy about the idea point out there is little clinical research directly measuring medical marijuana’s impact on opioid use. “I haven’t really seen anything that this would be somehow the savior of addiction,” said Mary Haag, president and chief executive officer of PreventionFirst!, the Cincinnati nonprofit that combats substance abuse among children and teenagers.
Haag said marijuana’s own addictive power complicates its usefulness as a weapon against opioid addiction. “People seem not to be paying attention to that or are discounting that,” she said. “That is part of the concern that we have, in Ohio anyway, in unleashing marijuana this way.”
Echoing those concerns was Dr. Mark Hurst, who last month was named the new director for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. While calling medical marijuana “interesting,” Hurst said, “There is no scientific evidence that marijuana is an effective treatment of opioid addiction.”
Yet the body of research on medical marijuana and opioid addiction is growing, with promising trends:
• A 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania found a 25 percent lower rate of opioid overdoses in states with medical marijuana than in those that didn’t. The drop in overdoses “generally strengthened over time,” the study said.
• A 2016 University of Michigan study of 185 medical-marijuana patients found a 64 percent reduction in their opioid use. The patients also reported fewer opioid side effects and a major improvement in quality of life.
• A RAND Corp. study in March said the benefit depends on accessibility of medical marijuana. The tighter the state regulation of the drug and of dispensaries, the less benefit that medical cannabis has on opioid addiction in a population.
Sawyer, Barbee and Berger said medical marijuana can fight the opioid epidemic by being the first choice for pain treatment, before opioids. Medical marijuana could also complement opioids, making both drugs more effective on pain. Patients also could use marijuana like methadone, as a way to wean away from opioids.
Barbee said she is on Social Security disability for Crohn’s disease and fibromyalgia. Marijuana treats her pain well enough that she can function every day. She has even become an activist and is eager for the Ohio program to begin.
“Every day that it’s not ready for patients to have, somebody’s dying,” she said. “I know from experience that marijuana will help people.”