Ohio Hoping New Medical Marijuana Law Will Ease Its Opioid Crisis

The headline above sounds similar to a passage from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s anti-war song “Ohio,” which chronicled the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University nearly 50 years ago.
But it’s actually a description of what is happening today in the Buckeye State, where opioid overdoses are killing people in large numbers.
Ohio is among the top five states with the highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths. In 2016, there were 3,613 opioid-related overdose deaths­­­ in Ohio — a rate of almost 33 deaths per 100,000 people.
That’s more than double the national rate of 13 deaths per 100,000, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A medical marijuana bill in Ohio passed and signed into law in 2016 was enacted two weeks ago.
Ohio residents with at least one of 21 qualifying conditions can now get a doctor’s recommendation to purchase marijuana at state-licensed dispensaries.
While chronic and severe pain are qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in Ohio, opioid addiction is not. State regulators are still debating that topic.
So far, only a handful of medical marijuana dispensaries in Ohio are open for patients. About 60 locations are expected to open by mid-March.
And it can’t happen too soon for many Ohio residents and advocates of the program.
A life saved by marijuana
Betty Cox says she would be dead if not for marijuana.
In 2016, Cox, 58, a widow, mother, and grandmother from Cincinnati, was sick and believed she was dying from her opioid medications.
She’d been taking them for 15 years for severe pain from serious injuries, fibromyalgia, and more.
Her daily regimen included high doses of morphine and Percocet.
Cox believed her daily intake was excessive, but she trusted her doctor at a pain management clinic.
“My doctor said opioids would benefit me more than hurt me. He never told me they were addicting,” Cox told Healthline.
She was helped by the meds for a while, but she made a life-changing decision when her pharmacy made her sign a document stating she knew the drugs were addicting.
“That’s when I knew I had to get off these drugs,” she said. “But I had to keep working, and keep the pain down, and take care of my kids. I didn’t know how I was going to do this.”
So she turned to marijuana, hoping it would help.
“It saved my life. Because of the marijuana, I was able to taper slowly off the opioids. It took more than two years and it was very hard, but I did it,” she said.
Cox is in far less pain now than she was when she was taking the prescription drugs. But she still is forced to purchase marijuana illegally.
“I was alive during the ’70s. I know how to find it,” she quipped.
But soon she won’t have to buy it on the streets. She has an appointment next week to get set up for medical marijuana in Ohio.
Does medical marijuana help?
Debate over the merits of medical marijuana to address this emergency continues in Ohio and nationwide.
Multiple studies from across the nation show a direct correlation between the legalization of medical marijuana and a decrease in opioid use, overdose, and death.
A 2018 study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the association between state implementation of medical cannabis laws and opioid prescribing under Medicare Part D.
The study found that prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by “2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law.”
And it found that prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.7 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened.
The study concluded that medical cannabis policies “may be one mechanism that can encourage lower prescription opioid use and serve as a harm abatement tool in the opioid crisis.”
According to data from the Minnesota Department of Health, 63 percent of patients known to be taking opiate painkillers who enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program “were able to reduce or eliminate opioid usage after six months.”Research conducted in New Mexico showed that medical cannabis enrollees, compared to nonusers, “were more likely either to reduce daily opioid prescription dosages between the beginning and end of the sample period (83.8 percent versus 44.8 percent) or to cease filling opioid prescriptions altogether (40.5 percent versus 3.4 percent).”