An Ohio physician and medial professor believes medical cannabis should be used to treat opioid addiction in a state that saw a record number of overdose deaths last year.
Dr. F. Stuart Leeds has been preparing data and research to submit to the State Medical Board of Ohio as it considers expanding the current list of conditions for which doctors can recommend medical cannabis. Leeds acknowledges the limited data, but he said some of the most telling research comes from his patients, some of whom are dealing with opioid addiction.
"Patients have been conducting their own self-experiments on a variety of street drugs for decades," said Leeds, who practices and teaches family medicine at Wright State University outside of Dayton. "They know more about what marijuana will do for their chronic pain and addiction problems than we do."
Leeds is on the registry of Ohio physicians who can recommend but not prescribe medical marijuana for 21 qualifying medical conditions, such as epilepsy and chronic pain. Opioid use disorder is currently a qualifying condition in three other medical marijuana states: New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Ohio's Medical Board is accepting petitions on adding qualifying conditions through the end of the year and will consult with experts before making a decision sometime next year. Cannabis products are expected to become available in Ohio dispensaries in the next few months following delays in rolling out the program.
Some experts don't think treating opioid addiction with marijuana is a good idea, including Dr. Mark Hurst, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Hurst declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press, but he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in August: "There is no scientific evidence that marijuana is an effective treatment for opioid addiction."
Brad Lander, a clinical psychologist in the department of addiction medicine at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, is also skeptical. He said marijuana impairs judgment, motor control and memory, and is linked to amotivational syndrome, which causes apathy and a decreased interest in activities.
"Patients smoking marijuana don't have the real motivation to do therapy to maintain long-term recovery or improve their lives," Lander told the AP.
Lander does agree with Leeds that there could be a possible short-term use for medical marijuana: easing the harsh withdrawal symptoms from tapering off buprenorphine, an opioid-like drug used by people in recovery to stave off cravings for heroin and prescription painkillers.
Lander said he is also open to the possibility of using CBD oil, which contains only tiny amounts of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes user high if it's proven effective in treating addiction.
Ohio has had one of the highest per capita overdose deaths rates in the country with opioids largely contributing to more than 4,800 unintentional fatal overdoses last year. Leeds, who will ask the Medical Board to also add anxiety as a qualifying condition, noted that unlike opioids, it's virtually impossible to die from a marijuana overdose.
In suburban Dayton, John Helpling said he used a variety of prescription pain medications after lower back surgery in 2007 left him with peripheral neuropathy and a burning pain in his foot. The 57-year-old said pain pills "pretty much make me feel useless."
He began a regimen of CBD oil and marijuana earlier this year and thinks he's on a path to putting his life back in order. He said he stopped taking prescription medications in April and has spoken with his doctor about obtaining legal cannabis products when they become available in Ohio.
"I'm feeling better now," Helpling said. "I'm feeling more healthy. I feel like I have more purpose."
Cannabis products were supposed to become available on September 8, but the date has been pushed back because of delays in the application and certification process for companies seeking to grow, test and sell marijuana products.
Helpling said he'd prefer buying legal medical marijuana that has been tested for impurities and toxic pesticides, something not guaranteed in marijuana purchased off the street.
Leeds acknowledges there is limited data on whether cannabis can help treat opioid addiction and said doctors will have to consider "what the lesser evil might be."
"I think we're going to have to approach this with some trepidation," he said. "But we can't pretend this drug has no value. That's clearly a myth."