Could medical marijuana help fight Pa.’s opioid epidemic? These local doctors think so

A lot is still unknown about medical marijuana, but some local doctors believe that it could help reduce the need to prescribe opioids and even potentially be used to treat addiction.

"For a long time, the pharmaceutical industry made us believe that these drugs were not addictive, but I think now we know better," said Dr. Fidelis Ejianreh, of Toftrees Family Medicine in State College. "These drugs are not only addictive, but they are killer drugs."

Though Ejianreh isn't currently prescribing opioids to patients, he said they're still needed to treat certain conditions, such as chronic pain. The difficult part about pain is that it's subjective, which can make treatment frustrating for both the doctor and the patient, he said.

Dr. Paul Simpson, of Family Recovery Solutions in Port Matilda, said he doesn't see there being a direct substitute for opioids because nothing provides as "intense of relief." However, medical marijuana may provide enough relief for certain people depending on their condition, he said.

According to the state Department of Health's most recent list, there are five physicians in Centre County, including Ejianreh and Simpson, who are approved to certify patients to participate in Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program.

Simpson, who treats substance abuse and addiction patients, wasn't sure if he would ever recommend medical marijuana because the state law didn't allow for patients with a history of addiction to participate in the program. But a new measure may be a "game changer."

The state Department of Health recently approved temporary changes to its medical marijuana program that adds opioid addiction to the list of qualifying conditions, making Pennsylvania the first state to do so, according to a press release.

“It’s important to note that medical marijuana is not a substitute for proven treatments for opioid-use disorder," Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement. "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.”

Ejianreh said people suffering with addiction need to be looked at with compassion and understanding, not scorn and ignorance.

"I think people need to educate themselves on the potential uses of medical marijuana, and I don’t think people should look down on medical marijuana as a product or people using medical marijuana because I think that’s part of the impediment in our fight against opioid addiction," he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the medical marijuana program into law in April 2016. So far, more than 37,000 Pennsylvanians have registered to participate in the program, and more than 16,000 of them have received identification cards and received medical marijuana at a dispensary, according a press release.

Centre County's first medical marijuana dispensary, Nature's Medicine in State College, is expected to open in mid-June.

There's still a "massive black hole" in medical marijuana research, Simpson said, which is in part because it's illegal on the federal level.

Eight universities, including Penn State's College of Medicine, had been approved by the Department of Health to study medical marijuana several weeks ago, but a judge recently put a hold on those plans citing issues with how the agency's regulations could circumvent the medical marijuana law's method of licensing growers and dispensaries.

"Time will tell whether medical marijuana is actually a better option or not," Ejianreh said. "The fact is this is still very much experimental."

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