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Cannabis tapped to relieve opioid withdrawal

Written by Howard Frank/Pocono Record | Jul 13, 2018 3:30 PM
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Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

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The treatment of opioid withdrawal has joined the state Health Department's list of approved uses for medical marijuana.

Its potential as a tool in weaning addicts from drug addiction was explored during a public forum at the East Stroudsburg University Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

"There's an evolving body of evidence that would suggest that you can heal the brain using cannabis." Dr. Bruce Nicholson, director of the division of pain management at Lehigh Valley Health Network, told the audience. "Rewire those circuits altering that desire as far as changing the neurochemistry of the brain, and reduce the likelihood of recidivism."

Panelist and cannabis expert Ry Prichard said he's witnessed its therapeutic powers.

"What I've found in the cannabis industry is people who have been regular users of cannabis have always found healing benefits for it, whether or not they were using it recreationally," he said. "People have been familiar with the healing powers of this plant for thousands of years. When people don't have the education to know about the natural alternative they won't take it.

"We are the leading pill swallowing country in the world," said Prichard, who co-hosts Viceland's "Bong Appetite," TV's first show on cooking with cannabis.

Prichard said depression, anxiety and other chemical imbalances are actually a result of endocannabinoid deficiencies.

"Not only is it a way to treat pain but restore balance in people's lives," he said.

State Sen. Michael Folmer, the Lebanon County Republican who sponsored Pennsylvania's medical marijuana law, also spoke at the forum.

"I came across a 2015 study by Dr. Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkin's who discovered that in states that were using cannabis as an alternative to long term pain management, that their prescription drug overdoses dropped by 25 percent in the first year and continued in subsequent years," Folmer said.

According to Folmer, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado's combined Medicaid prescriptions decreased by $432 million in 2015. These are all states that have legalized cannabis.

"One thing I weeded out when I was researching this was medical cannabis," he said.  "This was the common denominator. On these other medications people would say, 'I felt like a zombie.' Another medication, 'I didn't want to get up in the morning. Here I feel like a human again. I want to get back to work.' It's anecdotal, so we want to understand that and bring it under study under the proper stewardship."

Folmer discussed what he saw as the next step for the industry.

"We have to get the feds off their duffs and move cannabis from a schedule one to a schedule 2 substance and allow our banks to do business," he said. "We don't want to have all this cash flying around."

But there are deeper implications for reclassifying cannabis.

"We are constrained," Nicholson said. "We can't do randomized controlled trials. We can only do observational trials."

"I would argue for descheduling it. It is medicine and it always has been," Pritchard said. "The way to spread it is to deschedule it. It opens it up to research.

"It's just a plant. It's just a flower."

Medical marijuana is also legal in Pennsylvania for the treatment of a limited number of diseases including; autism, cancer, Crohn's disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS, ALS, Huntington's disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Sickle Cell Anemia.

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