At age 49, after being 20 years clean from a methamphetamine addiction, Dawn Lindsey was hopelessly hooked again.
Now, though, she blamed a doctor for her new habit: dependencies on the opiate hydrocodone and nerve-pain reliever gabapentin.
It started in 2010 when Lindsey injured her back while on the job as a dog groomer in Texas. Seven years later, she was too high to work and “terrified of the withdrawal that I would have to go through.”
Last May, after Lindsey built up a resistance to hydrocodone and her doctor suggested moving up to a patch of fentanyl — which the Drug Enforcement Administration deems 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — she packed up her husband and two kids and moved to Woodland Park, Colo.
She knew she was addicted and needed to do something about it. Having read on the Internet about using marijuana for softening the agony of withdrawal, she hooked up with a cannabis-friendly doctor.
Now getting sober for a second time, she and her doctor have worked out a regimen to help her manage her pain with cannabis.
Every night before bed, Lindsay, now 51, puts a rice-size amount of “full-extract cannabis oil” under her tongue; in the morning she consumes two teaspoons of cannabis-infused coconut oil in her coffee; during the day, depending on how she is feeling, she will sometimes vape.
“I take one hydrocodone pill a day instead of six and 300 milligrams of gabapentin instead of 900. My mind is clear, [my] pain is minimized. I hope to be off the pills within the next three to six months.”
Though she is currently on disability, due to back and joint pain, she hopes to get back to work within a year.
Cannabis advocates — including some physicians — believe that weed can help break addiction to opioids, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killed 63,600 people in 2016.
While no states currently allow medical marijuana to be used specifically for this purpose, New York Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell hopes to change that. He recently wrote a bill to add opiate addiction as a prescribable condition for medical marijuana, which has been legal in New York since 2014. It is due to be voted on in the Assembly sometime before June.
O’Donnell spent more than seven years as a public defender, often representing opioid addicts. “States that allow marijuana use had a 20 percent drop in opioid deaths between 2009 and 2014,” says O’Donnell. “If I had an addicted child or sibling, I’d hope that they would try marijuana before going on another opioid such as methadone.”
Some who are in favor of treating opioid addiction with THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) maintain that the substance interacts positively with brain receptors that foster opioid addiction.
“Cannabis breaks the cycle of pleasure and reward being programmed by opiates,” says Dr. Bonni Goldstein, a cannabis-focused M.D., as well as owner and medical director of Canna-Centers Wellness & Education in Southern California. A 2016 study by investigators at Scripps Research institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in NYC, reports that the class of neurotransmitters activated in the brain by marijuana “modulates the rewarding effects of addictive drugs.”
“The cannabinoid receptors are located in areas of the brain that control pleasure and reward. If there is a dysfunction in that part of the brain, causing the driving force for addiction, cannabis tells the cells to stop seeking drugs,” says Goldstein. “It breaks the drug-seeking message.”
Others say it relieves physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal, such as cramps and nausea, while benefits beyond that are more psychological.
“When people are in the throes of addiction, they reach different readiness stages for change,” says Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, an addiction psychiatrist who owns the Recovery Spot NY in Gramercy Park.
“For some people, cannabis is a gateway off of heroin. I have a patient who has been off of heroin for years. Cannabis helped him through withdrawal and he smokes pot everyday. He doesn’t want to smoke pot, but he feels like he needs it to keep himself stable.”
The theory is that using weed is not perfect sobriety, but preferable to doing opiates.
Cannabis ‘allowed me to pull my life together.’ – one anonymous user
“Having no vices is really hard,” says an investment banker who transitioned from heroin to marijuana a decade ago and asked to remain anonymous. “I would prepare my day’s worth of shots in the morning because I couldn’t cook [heroin] in the office. For me, cannabis had an analgesic effect similar to opioids. It allowed me to pull my life together. I smoke a joint every night. It may not be sobriety but it’s taken me from being almost dead to having a great family, paying taxes and commuting into the city every day from Connecticut.”
Joe Schrank, an addiction specialist who runs High Sobriety out of Los Angeles and is a major proponent of what he calls “harm reduction,” has devised a workaround for New York patients: He brings them to states where marijuana is legal, checks into a hotel room or Airbnb rental with the addict and enlists the help of a local doctor. The doc facilitates detox — during which an ounce or so of weed is usually smoked over the course of a week or so.
“The best thing for an opiate detox is sleep,” says Schrank, who uses strains of marijuana with sedating effects.
After detox, “it’s a matter of figuring out what strains will help them. My attitude is to get rid of all the drug use [endangering] your life. What’s left is weed. Nobody dies from cannabis.” The CDC bears this out, reporting no overdoses from marijuana.
Schrank adds that his patients don’t need to stay on pot indefinitely. “After 90 days, we can help them get off. We got one kid [a former opioid addict] to limit his marijuana use, and now he’s going to law school.”