Medical marijuana could ease opioid crisis

Lack of dispensaries leads many in pain to use drugs

THE CAMPAIGN TO LEGALIZE MARIJUANA for recreational use in Massachusetts is dominating headlines and polls while drawing some strong opposition from important people. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Gov. Charlie Baker are all saying the ballot question should not be passed into law.

But regardless of where you stand on recreational marijuana, all this noise is obscuring the fact that the voters right now are being ignored on a crucial issue of public policy. Three years ago the people of Massachusetts voted by a two-thirds margin to give patients in chronic pain access to the proven benefits of medical marijuana. Frankly, that mandate hasn’t made much of a difference to thousands of patients with chronic pain, sleep disorders, AIDS and HIV, cancer, fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis who continue to be denied the help the law says they should have. The situation is especially urgent in Boston, where no licensed facility is open for patients seeking medical marijuana – this in a city where 69 percent of voters pulled the lever in favor of legal medical marijuana.

The six facilities that have opened statewide over the last three years are not nearly enough to handle demand from patients in pain. That situation means that most of those who need medical marijuana remain right where they were before the voters spoke: Trying to find relief illegally, or going without.

And there is a dramatically worse option for these patients, an option that Walsh, Healey, and Baker certainly don’t want to see used, and that’s when people in pain turn to opioids for help.

Walsh, Healey, and Baker have shown great leadership over the course of the last year in fighting the terrible scourge of opioid addiction, an epidemic that has touched virtually every single family in our state. Study after study has shown that abuse of opiates and the ensuing addiction occurs far too often when doctors attempting to deal with patient pain from operations, cancer, or injuries are overprescribing drugs like oxycontin – and inadvertently addicting those who are seeking only pain relief.

In my own case, battling multiple sclerosis, there were points where I could have been prescribed opioids but instead, and in line with the recommendations of the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, I worked with my health care provider to access medical marijuana. The result has been a dramatic decrease in symptoms without the potentially deadly risk of addiction.

Study after study has shown that access to medical marijuana as a way to ease pain without the use of opioids means lower rates of addiction and death.

If Walsh, Baker, and Healey continue to have any doubts about the use of marijuana to fight the epidemic of opioid addiction they need only look to recent steps taken by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to see a path to better care for those in pain.

Just last month, Warren asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take a hard look at the use of medical marijuana as a way to ease our national crisis with addiction. And she has good reason, as a slew of extremely reputable recent studies bear out.

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper last year showed that the presence of a medical marijuana dispensary meant a 15 to 35 percent drop in substance abuse admissions at area hospitals, and an equally large drop in opioid deaths by overdose. And a JAMA Internal Medicine study in 2014 found that states that allow medical marijuana have seen a 24.8 percent reduction in opioid deaths compared with states that had no medical marijuana laws.

Meet the Author

Geoffrey Reilinger

Founder, Compassionate Organics
Massachusetts has the medical marijuana law. What it lacks are enough licensed, secure, and regulated shops to handle the overwhelming need. That means that nearly 20,000 people seeking help with chronic pain are on waiting lists to find a place to get that help, help that for very many patients could mean an option to opiates.

It is time for cities and towns to stop dragging their feet on licenses for reputable, proven medical marijuana applicants. Simply put, it is inhumane. And in the face of an opioid epidemic is bad public policy.

Geoffrey Reilinger is the founder of Compassionate Organics, a medical marijuana facility seeking a license for a retail outlet in Allston.