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Are doctors and lawmakers overlooking a tool to fight the opioid epidemic?

November 07, 2017 11:42 PM

Opioid and heroin overdoses kill more people than car accidents in the United States. President Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. There is a controversial tool showing life-saving results for people addicted or dependent on narcotic pain medicines, but many doctors and lawmakers could be overlooking it.

Ralph Berardi has suffered from chronic pain for over a decade. He was injured on his lumber job sparking serious spinal and lower back pain. Doctors prescribed him opiates to manage the pain. Berardi popped several pills every day while also wearing a Fentanyl patch.

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"I was on that for almost a decade. In order to get the same results, my doctor had to keep giving higher doses to achieve the same results and I was still in pain,” Berardi said. "I knew it was bad for me, but I didn't have much of a choice.”

Berardi’s friend suggested he try something new, medical marijuana. He takes one puff, six times a day from his vapor pen. He’s been on it for a little over a year.

"I would say 2 or 3 weeks out I started noticing, hey I'm able to walk with less pain and oh I got a good night sleep,” Berardi said.

The benefits for Berardi are clear and he says he sees no side effects compared to many with opioid pills. Even though many people across the country report similar results, controversy continues to cloud the industry.

Doctor Leonid Vilensky at Upstate Pain Clinic in Pittsford specializes in pain management. He sees more than a dozen patients every day asking for alternatives to addictive opioids.

"It works as an exit drug for people who get dependent or even addicted to opioids,” Vilensky said. "Medical marijuana when used correctly can make it much easier to lower the dose of opioids or totally wean patients off opioids.”

So, why not take these results one-step further? What if New York State legalized the use of marijuana like Colorado or Washington?

Doctor Melvin Livingston, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and a team of other researchers at University of North Texas just wrapped up the first-ever study looking at recreational marijuana and opioid overdose deaths in Colorado.

"Instead of finding an increase in opioid-related mortality rates we found a decrease,” Livingston said.

When compared to states with medical marijuana programs, the study showed an additional 6.5 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths after marijuana was legalized recreationally. Similar studies have already been conducted that found a decrease in opioid related deaths in states where medical marijuana is legal. 

Data from Kaiser Family Foundation shows 12 states reported fewer overdose deaths from 2014 to 2015. Five of those states have legalized medical marijuana.

Doctor Livingston cautions that the data is new, but says it clearly shows more research is needed into the role recreational marijuana can play.

“We're in the middle of an unprecedented opioid crisis in this country and we need an evidence base for what kind of polices will be most effective for combating this,” Livingston said.

He also acknowledges other dangers arose as a result of recreational marijuana. For example, Colorado has seen an increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths and cases of driving while intoxicated. Local police chiefs like James VanBrederode in Gates, have been outspoken about those types of dangers.

"When people are under the influence of drugs, a mind-altering substance, those are the customers that can fight with the police, don't have common sense. They're hard to reason with,” VanBrederode said.

Until more evidence has been presented, pot, both medical and recreational, remains a tough sell, especially at the federal level. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been vocal against all forms of weed.

“Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse? Give me a break,” Sessions said to a crowd back in May. "I'm not sure we're going to be a better healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold in every corner grocery store.”

Berardi says he doesn't expect to see that, but has seen the benefits of New York legalizing medical marijuana. He wants lawmakers to look at options to make marijuana more accessible to those who need it, possibly saving a life.

"If there are alternatives out there I don't see why people have such a stigma,” Berardi said. “Is it a cure all for everything? No, but as someone who understands chronic pain I can tell you it has definitely unequivocally helped.”

Again, the reason for most doubt behind the idea of using medical marijuana stems from a lack of evidence. The National Institute of Health just handed over nearly $4 million dollars to researchers to conduct the first long-term study to test whether medical marijuana reduces opioid use for adults with chronic pain.

Credits

Kaci Jones

Copyright 2017 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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