In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, access to medical cannabis was associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates. States with medical marijuana laws showed almost 25 percent less average annual opioid overdose deaths than states without laws.
When I was 17 years old, I was driving two of my friends home from a football game at our high school. We were listening to music and having a blast. We had our whole lives ahead of us and the world at our fingertips. I had been accepted to my first-choice college on a full scholarship when we were hit by a drunk driver out of nowhere, and my car flipped over two times.
I was rushed to the hospital in critical condition and they did not think I was going to make it. I woke up in the ICU after two very serious surgeries for internal bleeding and an injury to my back. They told me that the right side, back, and front of his car were completely smashed in and somehow just around the driver’s seat was the only place that was not totaled and he was very lucky to be alive. My two friends who were in the car with me were not as lucky though and they died instantly upon impact. The emotional pain and guilt, in addition to the physical pain I was in, was too much to bear.
Needless to say, I was so badly injured and in so much pain I was administered morphine and other opiates while in the hospital. The pain meds were administered appropriately by the doctors, and while the pain meds were necessary for me while recovering from my injuries and several surgeries; it had awoken the beast of addiction inside of me. My family noticed that I was starting to ask for more and more pain meds even though I was getting better and was not in as much pain anymore. They expressed their concern to the Drs but it was brushed off by them.
Upon my discharge I was sent home with a dilaudid prescription, I knew over the counter pain meds would not be enough for me to manage my pain at home, but I knew I was in for a bumpy ride when I filled that script. My mom managed my pain meds for the first two weeks and kept them hidden while I recovered at their house. One day when they were at work I ransacked the house, found the prescription bottle and took the entire thing. My mom was devastated when she got home to find out what had happened. She tried to sit down and talk to me about it but I just thought she was being dramatic and convinced her I was fine.
I knew she was onto me so I packed my things and went to my apartment so I would have control of my pain meds and not have anyone regulating them. I was in full-on denial about what I was doing, and was too busy trying to get my next fix. When I ran out of my scripts my Drs wouldn’t refill them early, and I got so sick I went into full blown opiate withdrawals. Desperate, I went to the streets to find what I needed, and that day I shot heroin for the first time. My entire life changed that day and there was no turning back. I instantly went from an opiate addict to a heroin addict…just like that. This became my life for the next year. Everything I did revolved around finding or using heroin. I sold everything I owned and even resorted to selling my body. One day I had enough of the life I was living and knew if I continued down this path I was going to die.
I called my mom and asked her for help. She immediately got on the phone with our insurance company to find a detox center. Detoxing properly from opiates is so important and was not something I could do on my own. Every time I tried to I would get so sick that I could not take it and would get high again. Being medically detoxed helped me ease the withdrawal process, and get all of the opiates out of my system. The fog had been lifted and I started to think more clearly about the choices I made and never wanted to go back to the life I was living again.
Today I am 3 years free of my opiate addiction, thanks to cannabis! Total abstinence from all mood-and-mind-altering substances does not define my recovery. As someone who struggles with chronic pain as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of physical and sexual assault, I still experience emotional triggers. These can leave me vulnerable to my old way of self-medicating with opiates. What helps me through these potentially risky episodes? Marijuana. For me cannabis helps to ease my physical pain as well as my cravings for opiates. It puts me in touch with a part of my emotional core that gets shut down when I am triggered. While using cannabis, the thought of injecting toxic drugs into my body seems totally unhealthy and unappealing, probably the way it seems to someone who doesn’t have an opioid use disorder. It’s not a cure-all, but it stops me from relapsing.
People have been using this method on the streets for years, something I observed during my time in both active addiction and recovery. Anecdotally, marijuana’s efficacy as a withdrawal and recovery aid is said to be attributed to its pain-relieving properties, which help with the aches and pains of coming off an opioid, as well as adding the psychological balm of the high. The difference between opiated versus non-opiated perception is stark, to say the least. The ability to soften the blow of that transition helps some users acclimate to life without opioids. Even if the marijuana use doesn’t remain transitional, if someone who was formerly addicted to heroin continues to use marijuana for the rest of his or her life. The risk of a fatal overdose, hepatitis C or HIV transmission through IV drug use, and a host of other complications are completely eliminated.
Take it from someone who has walked the tenuous line of addiction, that’s a big win.
Marijuana may also be able to help people get off of opioid-based maintenance medications. Medical cannabis is currently legal in 31 states, many of which require patient registry or identification cards for the purchase and use of the substance for specific diagnosed medical conditions. These conditions differ by state and continue to change. At the federal level, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the “Controlled Substances Act,” and there are no recognized medical uses. In 24 of the states with legalized cannabis, some type of product testing is required. Testing varies by state and may be limited contamination tests or may include quantification of CBD and THC levels. California, for example, requires dispensaries to sell only marijuana that has been tested for pesticides, contaminants, and microbial impurities. Beginning in July 2018, the state also began to require testing to determine plant potency (ie, levels of THC and CBD). This information is included on the product label. It is important to know that consistency and quality of the product received may vary from dispensary to dispensary and from state to state.
The US tends not to allow recreational marijuana use, even in states where it has been legalized. But studies tell us this shouldn’t really be a concern. Two separate studies, one published in 2002 and the other in 2003, found that MAT patients who used cannabis did not show poorer outcomes than patients who abstained. Although this reasoning alone doesn’t mean marijuana helps with recovery, these findings set the groundwork for future research.
Do the experiences of people like me represent a viable treatment plan for opioid use disorder? I think so! It will likely be a few years before we have the official data. Until then, it’s high time we stop demonizing people in opioid recovery who choose to live a meaningful life that includes marijuana.
I have a life today that I never would have imagined could be part of my reality. I never thought I would make it to 30 years old, and I was convinced that I would die with a needle in my arm, or wrapped around a telephone pole from nodding out in my car. There’s a good life waiting for you outside of that spoon.
Crystal Hampton is a 37-year-old avid writer from South Florida. She loves snuggling with her teacup Yorkie, Gator, and boyfriend Adam. She works for a digital marketing company that advocates spreading awareness on the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope.
MS- Masters in Applied Behavior Analysis
B.Ed.- Bachelors in Elementary Education
Originally published in Weed World Magazine issue 139