Here’s why we need education, not misinformation, about medical cannabis

(Photo courtesy Pixabay)

Why aren’t we treating cannabis like the medicine it is?

I have written an awful lot about marijuana during the past few years. The beauty of it, however, is that I have reported the gamut of research about cannabis, which is what I have decided to call the plant from here on out.

Admittedly someone long fond of bud, I have chosen to abstain from it during periods of a year or longer. That’s not my choice now, as I am finding great relief from my PTSD-related anxiety, nightmares and tendency to withdraw since receiving my Illinois Medical Cannabis card.

In this new era of getting our information on social media, some experts call what I do “Wisdom Journalism.” Wisdom Journalism is when you know the topic you’re writing about so well that even though it may contain nuance that other reports leave out, it is considered acceptable by your audience.

Of course, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, or if you don’t walk the walk, your audience will abandon you.

I’m in a funny position having made a pretty good living the past couple of years writing branded content as a freelancer for some of the finest drug and alcohol treatment centers in America.

In general, addiction specialists traditionally have considered marijuana use a bad thing. The model of abstinence remains predominant in inpatient treatment covered by insurance companies.

Beyond that, true abstinence from all substances really is an ideal foundation for true recovery from drugs and alcohol. That said, it’s not always possible.

My views about marijuana or any topic in no way reflect the views of any of my clients.

Addiction, mental health interwoven

The reason the treatment centers I write for are so good is because they specialize in treating the co-occurring mental disorder as well.

Many people who suffer from various forms of mental illness find great relief from marijuana. But it has to be monitored, and the patient needs to know what they are doing.

Because not only can treatment with marijuana be ineffective for people with mental illness, what’s worse is that it could really screw them up.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do your research, try to make educated choices in consultation with your doctor and therapist, and then try alternative treatments. We can’t stop flat out lying about the benefits of cannabis any more than we can pretend it’s not addictive or that it doesn’t induce psychosis in some people.

Have you taken anything made by pharma lately? By no means are these perfect alternatives. Some of us, including myself, have determined some chemical treatments to be far worse than any side effects the proper dosing of the correct strains of cannabis might induce.

I am proud to say I am one month benzodiazepine free, but it hasn’t been easy. You can read about that here. It would have been impossible without the cannabis; at least right now given the dose I had been on of Xanax and Ativan before that.

So, we need to be fair and honest about medical cannabis.

And we need to be honest about how it interplays with addiction. While I have written extensively about marijuana having a dangerous role in recovery, the truth is I am finding more and more people – particularly those with PTSD – who have quit or drastically reduced their alcohol intake post medical cannabis card.

That is never a bad thing. Everyone deserves to feel better and break free from substances that are destroying their life. The “addiction” argument as it pertains to marijuana always falls flat with most users because they don’t feel marijuana is destroying their life. In fact, many marijuana users do know what that feels like, which is one of the reasons they smoke marijuana now instead of using other substances.

University of Mississippi garden provides research cannabis

Remove the mental health issue, and medical cannabis has broad, safe applications for an endless number of ailments. The most obvious: Helping the sick to get over nausea and to eat, and easing pain.

Then there are the headlines that tug at the heart strings – epileptic children finally seizure-free after cannabis treatment.

As is so often the case, I first broke into reporting about medical cannabis for my friend Josh Robbins. While I have written for Fortune 500 healthcare companies, major health news sites, and everything in between, Josh runs a little ol’ website like me.

Josh’s site isn’t really little, and it is HON certified. The point is, we have had tons of huge journalistic “firsts” together in the healthcare reporting space, particularly as it pertains to HIV, while working as a team.

I wrote this piece for Josh’s site. It was then that I learned that all the cannabis used for medical research in the United States comes out of a ditch weed garden at the University of Mississippi.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering how medical cannabis is legal in more than half the states, with hundreds of strains, and yet our government only studies a decades-old ditch weed and lumps it into research for all marijuana.

That is just crazy. And it’s a fact. There is no disputing it, even though it is finally changing – after half the states have made medical marijuana legal. In 2014, shortly after I wrote my story, the program expanded. You can check it out for yourself right here on the official University of Mississippi cannabis garden page.

Do you realize that would be like the FDA using only one type of pill as a catch all for all medical research?

Can you imagine the industry backlash!

Writing about cannabis from an informed point of view

From the dangers of making your own dabs to why smoking marijuana is risky for people trying to get off opioids, I’ve written about it from many different angles. And the lens I view all of this through has become much clearer.

People are dying of opioid overdose. People also are sharing their story en masse of how they not only got off opioids via cannabis, but also opioid maintenance therapy. The sad reality is that opioid maintenance therapy also is being abused and people being treated with it still are dying.

Even the tamper-proof opioid maintenance therapy isn’t working because addicts have figured out how to crush it, snort it, inject it and everything else.

We can’t keep lying about cannabis when it’s helping people. I certainly don’t intend to.

The truth is, the Colorado program is more about tourism than medicine, and cannabis detractors are having a ball with that. I wrote this story about Colorado cannabis for Healthline a couple of years ago. I visited Denver in May and did the full-blown Colorado Cannabis Tour.

It still doesn’t seem to have much of a legitimate medical program, from what I could tell, at least not in terms of high CBD levels and THC-CBD ratios. However, for people who had the medical card the cannabis they could get cost next to nothing compared to Illinois prices.

I can get 1:1 ratios at my medical cannabis dispensary in Illinois, for example. The CBD is what brings me relief from my chronic PTSD-related anxiety. I could not work as a medical writer orbiting my house on THC all day!

And I hope to start adding some clients from the cannabis world to my portfolio.

See you soon.

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Breaking: Powerful pain reliever works in monkeys without addiction, OD risk

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Followers of my blog and Facebook page, David Heitz Health, ask me all the time: Why aren’t there any alternative to opioids that actually work to relieve pain just as well?

I have been saying there are a few things in the works, and I have promised to follow up when there is news to share. That day finally has dawned.

Research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a new compound, BU08028, works to relieve pain in monkeys without harmful side effects such as addiction or overdose. In fact, even at doses ten to 30 times larger than what’s needed for pain relief, BU08028 did not slow breathing or cause other cardiovascular problems that lead to overdose deaths.

As for dependency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the monkeys “found it less rewarding than cocaine and two different opioids.”

BU08028 works by interacting with both opioid and non-opioid receptors in the brain.

Approximately 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, the NIH reports. That’s nearly a third of our population, and it has led to a national opioid crisis. Beyond addiction itself, the sharing of needles by addicts who progress to injecting has caused HIV and Hepatitis C rates to spike nationwide in communities that previously enjoyed low incidence of both diseases.

Read more: My Plus interview with Dr. Don Des Jarlais, founder of the modern needle exchange

“A potent opioid analgesic without addictive and respiratory adverse effects has been a predominant goal for opioid national chemistry since the isolation of morphine from opium in the 19th century,” reads the PNAS abstract. “By examining behavioral, physiological, and pharmacologic factors, the present study demonstrates that BU08028 exhibits full antinociception and antihypersensitivity (pain relief) without reinforcing effects (i.e. abuse liability) respiratory depression, pruritus (itching), adverse cardiovascular effects, or acute physical dependence.”

Don’t expect a pharmaceutical company to begin churning out BU8028 for humans anytime soon. The next step would be a phase 1 trial on humans, followed by additional clinical trials. Clinical trials take years and are wildly expensive, but a non-addictive pain reliever in the face of a national opioid epidemic could result in political pressure and a slightly expedited process.

Even under the most hopeful scenarios, such a pharmaceutical opioid alternative would be several years away.

Read more: My Healthline News report on how centipede venom could yield a powerful new pain medicine

At Overdose Awareness Walk, angry moms want justice, competent care

Bridge OD

It’s one thing to make my living writing about addiction and recovery, with most of my stories these days being about our nation’s raging opioid crisis.

But it’s another to go out and meet the loved ones of those who have lost the battle – moms and dads who’ve buried sons or daughters, sons and daughters who’ve buried moms and dads.

But that’s just what I did Saturday when I participated in the 3rd Annual Overdose Awareness Walk sponsored by Quad-Cities Harm Reduction. You can see pictures and videos from the event by checking out their Facebook page.

You can’t rehabilitate people who are dead. That message was driven home repeatedly in speeches given after the walk, which took a meaningful route in and of itself.

The walk began at Davenport’s Lafayette Park, which has been known for being a hub of drug activity. The surrounding housing for years has harbored drug dealers, although one such complex recently was demolished and new housing is sprouting in its place.

The walk made its way from Lafayette Park across the Centennial Bridge and into Illinois, ending at the stunning Schwiebert Riverfront Park in Rock Island.

I had not walked across that bridge since my own days of drinking and drugging.

Heroin overdoses up 300 percent nationwide

Saturday’s event focused on opioid overdoses and Naloxone, which can bring somebody OD’ing on heroin or painkillers back from the brink. Quad-Cities Harm Reduction raises money so they can pass out free Naloxone kits to the loved ones of people prone to overdose.

Read more: Prince story demonstrates the stigma of opioid addiction, but will it help change it?

In my decades long battle with alcoholism and addiction, opioids never were my thing. They often were offered to me at the tavern, and during times when I suffered from gout or sciatica pain (both of which have pretty much disappeared since getting sober almost two and a half years ago) only then would I agree to take them. Otherwise, they just tore my stomach up too much.

I did have an introduction to heroin (at least I presume that’s what it was) – once. But not by choice (a phenomenon that has repeated itself in my community at least one other time that I know of in recent years). I was assaulted, injected, and lived to tell about it.

You can read about everything I have been through right here. I have a PTSD diagnosis and live in fear for my life every day.

For many people, a small taste of opioids is all it takes for them to become addicted, so physically addicted that they become ill and can even die when they stop using. Many people who become addicted to opioids do not fit the societal definition of an addict – they were prescribed painkillers for a surgery or injury and simply became hooked.

Read more: Almost everyone who overdoses on painkillers continues to get refills from a doctor

Others just fell into the wrong crowd, or met the wrong person.

Angry moms want justice for their babies

I chatted with several people during the walk. There are some angry moms out there. They want justice for their babies.

Several spoke of federal prosecutions of the “bad guys’ who supplied heroin to their dead loved ones. While the local news has been abundant with such reports, with some dealers even being convicted of homicide in overdose situations, obviously it’s an even bigger story than what the local news media is reporting.

Scott County has the highest overdose rate in all of Iowa, organizers said.

Walkers said Quad-City law enforcement is doing an excellent job of getting the drugs off the streets. Whether the justice system will do its part is another question altogether (and a bit controversial).

One woman told me her daughter could not get the treatment she needed for opiate withdrawal at a local hospital. She said they told her “We don’t do that.” Instead, they gave her Librium, the woman said. Librium generally is given to alcoholics, and she said her daughter didn’t even drink.

Many others said when they tried to seek help for their loved ones, it just wasn’t available.

It’s clear from speaking to the walkers that the Quad-Cities community in particular is poorly equipped for this crisis and has a long way to go. Accolades to Quad-Cities Harm Reduction for raising awareness of the problem and doing its part to save lives, and to Quad-Cities law enforcement for getting the garbage off the streets.

Read More: Study illuminates ways opioids are being misused, falling into the wrong hands