The forum at the library drew a crowd numbering close to 200 last Tuesday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Kathleen McKinnon knows full well what heroin addiction does to families.
Those struggling with substance abuse put the high above everything else. The bills and even food fall to the wayside. The family is constantly worried.
McKinnon believes the answer for those families could be found in cannabis.
"Patients need to be able to have an option. This will allow them to start step down programs with the opioids," McKinnon said.
McKinnon is the director of operations for Canna Care Docs. The company is a collection of doctors who specialize in marijuana as a medicine. Patients can see a doctor for a cost of $200 -- which the company says is mostly driven because insurance won't cover the visit -- and explore options for medical marijuana.
McKinnon specifically focused on it being used as harm reduction to help people curb opioid addiction when she spoke at the Berkshire Atheneum last week. Canna Cares is partnering with Berkshire Roots, a medical marijuana cultivator and distributor, set to open on Dalton Avenue later this year or early 2018. The two put on a forum to explain what they do.
Karen Fisher, executive director for healing interventions, said she grew frustrated seeing the same patients over and over again, patients trying to stay off from opioids. She said while abstinence is the ultimate goal, many often relapse, and relapse with dire consequences. For those people, councilors in the health field have been using harm reduction options.
"Our current harm reduction options include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, with Naloxone for overdose and syringe access as additional tools," Fisher said.
She feels marijuana is a much safer option. Dr. Benjamin Caplan agrees. Caplan had a 58-year-old patient, a veteran, suffering from pain. The man took prescription pain medication every day and became addicted. Another patient was a 23-year-old woman who lost her parents in an accident and had become depressed.
"Both of these patients came in and were taught about their options in the cannabis space. Now the veteran is taking opioid on an as-needed basis instead of every day and the young woman is now thriving in psychotherapy," Caplan said.
He said cannabis has had "mind-blowing success" with patients. He said thousands of people are prescribed opioid medications to treat chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and more, while opioid have caused a massive addiction problem in the country.
"While we see the death toll from opioids climbing toward 70,000 individuals a year, we can scarcely find one death attributable directly to cannabis," Caplan said.
Last year, 62,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, he said, and this year the number will climb even further. In Massachusetts, that number is at 2,107.
"In each of the last four years here in Pittsfield, between 14 and 18 people have died from opioid-related causes. Where I live in Boston, the numbers are unfortunately worse," Caplan said.
"These are not evil people who are becoming addicted. They are certainly not druggies or delinquents or what society sometimes unfairly label."
He said there are no withdrawals with cannabis and in the states that have already legalized medical marijuana, the opioid death toll has dropped by a third.
McKinnon said the current medical system causes the drug epidemic. In 1996, pain was made the fifth vital sign and doctors were required to assess those levels.
"This resulted in a flood of opioid prescriptions hitting the streets, getting progressively worse each and every year," she said.
At the same time, cannabis remained, and remains, illegal under federal law. She points the finger at those policies as leading to what she called the greatest killer of all time.
"They gave away opioids like they were Skittles and people turned a blind eye. This created a national pandemic of opioid and heroin use," McKinnon said.
But cannabis isn't just used as a medicine for detoxification of opioids. According to Dennis DePaolo, the chief operating officer at Berkshire Roots, it has long been used to treat an array of conditions from rheumatoid to gout.
"Cannabis is arguably the most medicinal plants in the world," DePaolo said.
He dates medical use of marijuana back 5,000 years. He said he is focused on the science behind marijuana as a medicine, honing in on the dosages, types of plants, and an array of delivery methods -- from smoking to vaporizing to inhalers.
"There is still a lot of misinformation so it is going to come to these events, put on these events, and hear from professionals that really look at the research, do the research, and understand the research and can really explain it," DePaolo said.
The doctors at Canna Care Docs can make the recommendations, even if a person's primary care doctor hadn't prescribed it. They welcome anyone who may have a qualifying condition to visit them and talk about the options.
"It is a recommendation. If you have a qualifying condition and you have a doctor saying, 'yes, you do,' after an in-depth discussion and relationship with that doctor, you can have a recommendation from that doctor to use cannabis legally for a year," said Canna Care Docs co-founder Marta Downing.
But, at least one man in the audience felt the cost to visit a doctor was too much. He said he shouldn't have to pay so much to get a certificate that last one year to purchase it and then have to buy the marijuana.
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