UC San Diego doctor using cannabis to help opioid addicts

This week, President Trump created a commission to fight addiction to opiates, a nod to a deadly serious problem in the United States that’s only getting worse. The head of the division of pain medicine in the department of anesthesia at UC San Diego is treating people who’ve become addicted to opioids, like heroin, with another drug, cannabis.

A lot of folks who treat addicts say using one drug to help people get off another one is a bad idea. But Dr. Mark Wallace said he’s had great success using very carefully dosed cannabis to help people stop using dangerous, damaging drugs like heroin.

Wallace makes it clear right up front. He does not treat addiction. He treats pain, but with the explosion of opioid use, or abuse, the two frequently intersect.

“There’s not a fine line between treating pain and addiction. We give these patients these¬†opiates and they, they’re treating their pain, but they’re also becoming addicted,” said Dr. Wallace.

Wallace said addiction to opioids is one of the toughest addictions to deal with. He said patients who initially take the drugs for pain, often become addicted and then keep taking the drugs to stave off horrible withdrawal symptoms. So, in the late 90’s, after Californians approved medical marijuana, he started trying cannabis for some of his patients. But initially he had concerns.

“When I started using it in the late 90’s, I thought, well what are they getting? I don’t know exactly what dose they’re getting,” Wallace said.

But subsequent research, some of it done at UC San Diego, solved that issue. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for pain patients who are struggling to get off opioids, Dr. Wallace said cannabis, carefully prescribed and monitored, can be very helpful.

“Even the ones that are kind of, the pain is increasing and they’re hanging in there, I can give them the cannabis and it will treat their pain and it will treat some of the withdrawal symptom too,” he said.

Dr. Wallace has received his share of criticism from people who treat addiction. But for him given tough choices, he’s very comfortable with his approach. “If I had to choose between medical cannabis and an opiate, I would choose cannabis. There’s never been a reported death, I think that the abuse potential is way overrated, mainly because of the demonization it’s had for so many years.”

Dr. Wallace said about 19,000 people die every year just from abuse of prescription opioids, another 45 to 50,000 from heroin overdoses. So, if medical cannabis carefully prescribed can help turn around those numbers, Dr. Wallace said concerns about becoming addicted to marijuana obviously take a back seat.

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