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Maine: Where medical marijuana is saving opioid addicts
02:03 - Source: CNN

Watch Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN Special Report “Weed 4: Pot vs. Pills” on Sunday, April 29, at 8 p.m. ET.

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Doctors and patients alike are turning to medical marijuana over prescription opioids

Marc Schechter took nearly 40,000 pills over 10 years

CNN  — 

In 2016, opioids killed more Americans than breast cancer. The drug overdose epidemic has become one of the most concerning public health issues of recent time, and in an effort to stem the tide, moreg and more patients and doctors are turning to pot over pills.

For much of the past two decades, 51-year-old Angie Slinker took a cocktail of narcotics, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to manage the pain stemming from a car accident in 1998. She had between 50 and 60 surgeries, but her pain persisted, and doctors kept giving her more pills.

“It was just a vicious cycle,” she told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “You started taking something for pain, and before you knew it, you were into another surgery. Which brought on anxiety.” To treat the anxiety, doctors prescribed more pills. And when she felt depressed, they added even more medications.

All the drugs left in her a fog. She spent most of her days in bed. When Slinker woke up, she was in pain and looking for immediate relief.

By 2012, she was taking up to 25 pills a day. She weighed close to 350 pounds, and she didn’t want to move, because the medications sapped whatever will or desire she had. “I can’t do this anymore. It is killing me from the inside out,” she told her doctors.

And so she stopped cold turkey.

The withdrawal symptoms were severe. Slinker said she was moody and irritable from the pounding headaches and constant nausea. Without any medications, her hands began to spasm and freeze.

Her then 22 year-old son suggested cannabis. The relief was quick. “I realized immediately that there are medicinal properties within cannabis,” she said.

It didn’t completely eliminate her pain, but pot allowed her to live again, she says. She was able to play with her granddaughter and participate in life. “I’m never going to be pain-free, ever. But cannabis has given me a reason to live,” Slinker said.

But it is also illegal in her home state of Indiana. “I could have bought cannabis off the street. But that was not me. I wanted to do it the right way. I wanted to do it legally,” she said. So in July 2012, Slinker moved to Maine.

Treating patients with weed

Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999. The state has one of the top ten highest rates of opioid overdose in the country. In 2016, the rate of overdoses from opioid drugs in Maine was nearly double the national rate. The number of heroin related deaths has jumped more than fourfold since 2012.

For a state deeply embedded in the opioid crisis, Dustin Sulak believes that medical marijuana could be part of a solution. “There’s no pill, there’s no spray, no drop, no puff [that] can completely solve this problem,” Sulak told Gupta. “But cannabis, when it’s used in the right way, can take a big bite out of it.”

Sulak is a doctor of osteopathic medicine. He says he has treated hundreds of people with marijuana to wean them off opioid painkillers. He runs two outpatient clinics in Maine and started looking to marijuana as a potential solution when he noticed that a number of his patients were able to sustain their opioid dosages for years, never asking for more.

Production of natural opioids is triggered when the body experiences pain. But opioid medications can act as a signal to the body to stop producing endorphins; it instead becomes more and more reliant on the drugs. When the person takes more opioids, that increases the risk for overdose.