Can medical marijuana solve our opioid addiction problem?

marijuana doctor hbtv hemp beach tvWhen Ian Young went to get a massage in August 2008, he had already been living with pain for more than decade. A car accident with a drunk driver in 1997 had left him with lingering discomfort in his neck. Deep tissue massages, along with gym workouts and stretching, were his primary means of treating his pain.

But this massage wouldn’t provide any relief. Immediately after, he experienced sharp pain and swelling around his neck. Doctors later told him he had four bulging discs at the top of his spinal column. The diagnosis would lead to a nearly six-year dependence on prescription painkillers.

Young began taking Percocet daily. Percocet is a brand name for the opioid oxycodone; another is OxyContin. Opioids, like oxycodone and hydrocodone (sold as Vicodin), are derived from the poppy plant, also the source of the narcotics heroin and opium. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. is in the midst of an epidemic of opioid painkiller abuse. Deaths from opioid overdoses have tripled since 1999, now taking the lives of more than 16,000 Americans yearly. (Fault Lines examines the opioid epidemic in the U.S. in “Opioid Wars,” airing Saturday, October 25, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America.)

After a surgery to fuse two of his bulging discs in 2011, Young’s painkiller dosage topped out at 240 mg of hydrocodone and 225 mg of oxycodone per day. He’s taken as many as 15 different medications at a single time, some for pain and others to counteract the painkillers’ side effects, like constipation or fatigue.

He simply needed all of those meds to function. “My pain is different every day, it’s dull, sharp, stabbing,” Young said. “Sometimes it can be just a lingering, throbbing pain sitting in the back of my neck agonizing me.”

Despite his dependence, he grew tired of having to keep track of the pills he’d taken on a given day. “Every time I went in for refills or checkups, I would say, ‘I can’t live this way,’ Young said. “I was probably taking more prescriptions than my grandfather.”

With the help of a pain management specialist at the University of Washington, he began to wean himself off opioids starting three years ago. Since this past March, the now-41-year-old Internet entrepreneur has been essentially opioid-free.

Young applied a kitchen sink approach to phasing out his pain meds, turning to mind-body relaxation techniques, like acupuncture, and herbal and Chinese medicine. But one of the keys to his post-painkiller existence has been medical marijuana.

Twenty-three states allow marijuana to be used, at least medically. But in the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is on par with heroin, LSD and ecstasy—a so-called schedule 1 drug that is said to be highly addictive and have no medical value. Manufacturers of opioid drugs, like Perdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, financially back several high-profile groups that lobby against marijuana legalization across the country.

A resident of Seattle, Young took advantage of Washington state’s 2012 decision to legalize pot. He is now one of an estimated 2 million people in the U.S. who use medical marijuana to treat a variety of ailments, according to the group Americans for Safe Access. Among pot’s possible uses, say many pain specialists, is to help patients reduce their dependence on opioids.

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