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Recovery community wary of medical cannabis treatment

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Pennsylvania's recent move to approve medical marijuana for the treatment of opioid addiction won praise from many quarters, but people who work with addicts are skeptical.

The commonwealth this month became the second state after New Jersey to adopt the controversial policy, one that is designed to help alleviate the toll of opioid addiction, which claimed the lives of 5,200 Pennsylvanians last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advocates of medical marijuana swear by the treatment. But addiction workers believe other options are superior.

“There’s less risk of an individual overdosing on marijuana, but it’s still a mood- and mind-altering substance that, without proper treatment, is just going to lead to their demise,” said Kirstin Varner, chief communications officer for The Rase Project, a recovery community organization based in Harrisburg with offices in York, Lancaster, Hanover and Carlisle.

Patients in Pennsylvania have been able to use medical marijuana in treating opioid addiction since May 17.

In announcing the policy, state officials noted medical marijuana is not a substitute for other approaches.

“In Pennsylvania, medical marijuana will be available to patients if all other treatment fails, or if a physician recommends that it be used in conjunction with traditional therapies,” Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement.

The move was welcomed by Mike Rohrbaugh, director of logistics for Omni Medical Services of PA, a subsidiary of Michigan-based Omni Medical Services. Omni operates medical marijuana clinics in Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

People can go to Omni Medical’s clinics to become certified to use medical marijuana and have their treatment overseen by a physician. It is not a dispenser or grower of medical marijuana. 

Rohrbaugh said he defeated his 24-year opiate addiction by using medical marijuana.

But Varner and others are leery.

What’s concerning, Varner said, is that not enough research has been done to determine the efficacy of medical marijuana.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has said that legalization of marijuana might correlate with reduced prescription opioid use and overdose deaths, but researchers don’t have sufficient evidence to back that up. Furthermore, a recent National Institutes of Health study indicates that marijuana use may increase the risk of developing an opiate addiction.

In addition, the THC in marijuana is known to be addictive, recovery experts say. If patients use cannabis containing THC, Varner said, it could do more harm than good.

Medical marijuana does have THC, but other cannabis extracts called cannabidiols have pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory components without THC, Rohrbaugh explained. He said it is up to doctors and patients to choose which strains to use – strains with or without THC.

Varner, however, is concerned that some patients might bypass doctors.

If a recovery program is built around addicts getting a medical marijuana card, and they are going to a physician who is monitoring them, Varner said it’s a conversation she would be willing to have.

“But this doesn’t seem to be what that is. This seems to be just show up at the dispensary with your card and use it to treat your opioid-use disorder,” Varner said.

Kathleen Birmingham, program director at the Lancaster Freedom Center, a drug addiction treatment center in Lancaster, also isn’t sold.

Addiction is all about craving, Birmingham explained, and marijuana does not control that craving.

“What stops the craving is Vivitrol, and they would be better off taking that than medical marijuana, as far as I’m concerned,” Birmingham said.

Vivitrol is an opioid blocker that is often prescribed to help people stay off opioids while recovering from an addiction. Other drugs like Suboxone and Methadone have also proven successful in the treatment of opioid addiction.

But while Birmingham doesn’t believe marijuana should be the first line of treatment, if somebody says it works for them, she said, more power to them.

“I’m all about helping people to get off opiates because opiates are killing them. If they keep going with the opiates, they’re going to die,” Birmingham said.

Renea Snyder, founder and CEO of Migliore Treatment Services, a drug addiction treatment center in Swatara Township, believes there are many paths to recovery.

She said medical marijuana may not benefit every patient, but it might help some, and in those cases, her treatment center would be supportive.

“I can’t take my closed-mindedness or my policies and force them onto other people. I have to be open and meet them where they are,” Snyder said.

But her practice is mindful that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even for medical uses.

“So we do not prescribe, we wouldn’t transport, we don’t allow that type of drug on premises,” Snyder said.

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Shelby White

Shelby White covers banking and finance, law and Lancaster County for the Central Penn Business Journal. For tips, email her at swhite@cpbj.com.

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