Medical marijuana versus the opioid epidemic in Utah

Story and gallery by CHANDLEY CHYNOWETH

Utah has the seventh highest drug overdose rate in the United States. Six people in Utah die every day from opioid overdoses, according to Opidemic. Taking opioids prescribed from a doctor can be harmful and cause addiction. It’s important that people are informed about this issue in order to prevent it from happening.

According to Opidemic, opioids release chemicals in the brain that stop the perception of pain. The brain can become accustomed to the pills and demand unnatural levels to dull pain and feel pleasure.

One individual, a neurologist, who has been practicing in Provo, Utah, for 28 years, believes that medical marijuana can be an answer to this opioid problem. He asked not to be identified because medical marijuana isn’t legal in Utah, so he will be referred to as Dr. R. He said, “There are over 200,000 new opioid addicts in the United States every year.”

Dr. R mentioned that many of the illicit drug addictions stem from prescription opioids. Oxycodone is the most commonly abused medication. He believes heroine is the most popular illicit drug that opioid abuse leads to because of the falling prices for it in Utah.

In his clinic he only prescribes opioids if the patient is in immense pain. When he does prescribe them it is in low quantities for a short period of time. He will try every other option of medication before he tries opioids because of their negative effects.

If the patient is looking for long-term opioid prescriptions he sends them to a pain clinic that can better manage their pain and medication intake.

When prescribing an opioid Dr. R has three rules: 1. The patient must sign a contract agreeing that he is the only provider for this drug; 2. The patient has to agree to stay within the parameters he supplies; 3. His office checks the patient out on DOPL, which stands for The Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. This program indicates what other medications the patient is prescribed. He takes these measures to prevent patient addiction.

“I prefer medical marijuana to opioids, and anecdotally multiple patients have told me medical marijuana works better than their opioids,” Dr. R said. He explained marijuana is known to be a “culture drug,” which is the cause for difficulty in legalization.

Michelle C., a medical assistant who has been practicing in Draper, Utah, for eight years, said opioid addiction is a significant problem. Many patients come to her clinic seeking an opioid prescription.

“It doesn’t matter about your age, gender, or profession, anyone can become addicted and we see all different types of people that are struggling,” said Michelle, who asked not to be identified. If a patient wants an opioid prescription and is in pain, the clinic will prescribe one as a last resort and only for three months at most.

In most cases, Michelle said medical marijuana is a better alternative than opioids. She said it can benefit children who suffer from seizures and birth defects because it has been proven to help them. Cancer patients can also find great relief from it.

Michelle’s sister suffers from LAM disease, which attacks the lungs and is fatal. “My sister lives in Idaho so she doesn’t have access to medical marijuana. I wish that she did because it would benefit her a lot more than the pain pills she is prescribed,” Michelle said. Her sister is in constant pain and she believes that in cases like that, medical marijuana is the way to go.

Michelle does not recommend smoking medical marijuana for health reasons, and says taking the pill form of it is best.

Lee Barry, who lives in California and uses medical marijuana for his back pain, said he used to be prescribed pain pills and began to worry when he started depending on them too much. He increased his dosage because his body became used to the medication. Soon he realized that he couldn’t continue taking them because he was on the road to addiction.

He turned to medical marijuana and said it was a much better solution for him. “When taking my pain pills I felt groggy and in a daze all the time. When I switched over to medical marijuana I felt so much better and didn’t have to worry about addiction,” Barry explained in a Skype interview.

Barry believes medical marijuana is a perfect alternative to pain pills and would never go back to taking them again. It helps his back pain and he feels more like himself than when he was using opioids. He doesn’t know where he would be in his life without it.

Barry, Michelle, and Dr. R all agree that medical marijuana is the better alternative to opioid medications. They all believe that the opioid epidemic is very serious and caution people to avoid taking them at any cost.

If you or a loved one is suffering from opioid addiction you can call 1-800-622-HELP to reach Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline that is free and confidential.

RELATED: Listen to The Politics of Medical Marijuana, a May 2018 episode of KUER’s “RadioWest” that explored “the politics, popular opinion, and policies surrounding legalizing cannabis” in the U.S. and Utah.