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With opioid addiction rising, experts eye medical marijuana

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By   /   May 31, 2016

 DRUG SWITCH: People addicted to opioids in Vermont may soon have the ability to use medical marijuana to combat their addiction.

With opioid addiction increasing at alarming rates, leaders are open to new ideas, including the use of medical marijuana to help mitigate the crisis.

“People are looking for creative solutions here,” said Kalev Freeman, a medical doctor who studies medicinal marijuana at the Phytoscience Institute in Montpelier. “Whether you are in Hardwick or Rutland or Burlington, we are seeing this all over the state, and really all over New England.”

According to the Vermont Department of Health, the number of people treated for prescription opioid abuse between 2010 and 2014 went up about 52 percent, from 1,946 to 2,971. During that same period, those receiving treatment for heroin abuse went up over 262 percent, from 623 to 2,258.

The numbers do not account for untreated drug abuse. According to a VTDigger special report in February, Chittenden County alone had 300 people waiting for treatment, with wait times averaging one year. The treatment is costly too: over $13 million in tax payer money was budgeted to fight the opioid epidemic in 2015.

Freeman, who is board-certified in emergency medicine, frequently sees the worst of the opioid crisis from inside emergency rooms.

“It’s gotten worse,” he said. “I moved here from Boston eight years ago, and I remember when I was working in their city hospital we saw a lot of heroin overdoses. When I moved to Vermont I said, ‘Well this is great, we won’t have this problem in Vermont.’ (But) over the last eight years it’s increased dramatically. It’s really different working today from seven or eight years ago.”

Freeman says he is seeing  opioid addicts turn to medical marijuana for help on their own initiative, and with some success.

“(The medical marijuana program) has been going on for about three years now, and over those years we have seen this group of patients who are using opioids already for chronic pain being referred to the medical marijuana dispensaries, and they are asking for help for getting off of pain meds.”

While medical marijuana use is commonly used to help alleviate chronic pain, Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to sign a bill to broaden the scope of medical marijuana use which, according to Freeman’s interpretation, should include opioid addicts. It will not include clinical trials on patients due to FDA restrictions, but entities like Phytoscience will be able to experiment with the medical strains within their laboratories.

Willy Cats-Baril, a University of Vermont business professor and colleague of Freeman’s at Phytoscience Institute, says the bill will not only open up the market, but also expand the scope of research allowed.

“We were very happy about S.14,” said Cats-Baril. “Vermont has maybe the strictest medical marijuana program in the country. Comparatively speaking, the percentage of Vermonters that are on a medical marijuana program is the lowest in the country.”

He echoed Freeman’s sentiment that opioid addiction is an urgent situation.

“This opium epidemic is killing, I think, 1,500 people a year in New Hampshire. This is serious stuff,” Cats-Baril said. “Politicians are taking their head out of the sand here and addressing it because it is becoming a real major issue that is draining a tremendous amount of resources.”

State Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Stannard, a member of the House Committee on Human Services, has been advocating for better treatment for those suffering from opioid addiction. He acknowledged the avenue of using marijuana.

“I guess ‘treatment’ is the key word, because there are many who would say it’s not treatment, but … is kind of supplanting one substance use for another that is less damaging,” Troiano said.

“I think we should be ready to put any tool in the box that we can. It’s a real problem and we are spending tons of money on it. Anything that may have a positive impact on the treatment, I would support it.”

Contact Michael Bielawski at mbielawski@watchdog.org

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