Commentary: Medical marijuana will help Pa. fight opioid crisis

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Medical marijuana grows at a New Jersey operation.

Pennsylvania is in the midst of an opioid crisis that continues to worsen. For too many patients, seeking relief from their pain has led to addiction - which, in some cases, has cost them their lives. The commonwealth has the eighth-highest rate of fatal opioid overdoses. More than 3,500 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015 - up 23 percent from 2014. Officials expect to see a significant uptick in this number for 2016, as well, once those numbers are in.

For the thousands of suffering patients and families who have bemoaned the lack of an effective, safe treatment for pain, a solution may be on the horizon. In 2017, Pennsylvania joined 29 other states across the nation that have legalized medical marijuana.

Cannabis has come a long way from being considered only a recreational substance. Countless studies have shown that cannabinoids - the chemical compounds found in cannabis - have an impact on pain and inflammation that is 20 times greater than aspirin, with very little risk. When cannabis is converted to a medical form such as pills or ointments, the THC - the main mind-altering chemical found in marijuana - is reduced. Many patients have found effective pain relief with medical marijuana, with minimal or no psychoactive effects.

Not only has medical marijuana been proven to relieve patients' suffering, it has also helped to drastically reduce the number of fatal opioid overdoses. A study by the American Medical Association in 2014 found that states with medical marijuana laws saw a 25 percent drop in deaths from opioid overdoses compared with states without them. Additionally, the study found, individuals who used medical marijuana for legitimate medical conditions decreased their use of opioids by 50 percent.

Pennsylvanians have Gov. Wolf and their state legislators to thank for enacting one of the most comprehensive medical marijuana laws in the nation. Medical cannabis has been approved to treat 17 medical conditions in both adults and children, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, autism, ALS, and PTSD. Most significantly, the legislature included chronic pain on the list of approved conditions. In the battle to curb opioid addiction, the importance of this inclusion cannot be overstated.

Adults will not be the only beneficiaries of Pennsylvania's new law. Parents of children with epilepsy and autism will be heartened to know that medical marijuana may soon offer another treatment option for their children. Many readers may recall the story of 3-year-old Coloradan Charlotte Figi, whose severe epilepsy was causing 300 seizures a week. When her parents finally succeeded in persuading her doctors to try medical marijuana, her seizures dropped to several a week. While much research remains to be done around medical cannabis and conditions in children, Pennsylvania lawmakers have offered hope to parents of children with severe conditions that have proven resistant to other drugs.

The state has also taken steps to ensure the safety of Pennsylvanians around the production, sale, and use of medical marijuana. Medical cannabis - which must meet federal Food and Drug Administration regulations - will only be available to patients in the form of pills, oils, topical creams, tincture, and liquid. Vaporization or nebulization of medical marijuana will be an option, when medically appropriate. In Pennsylvania, it will not be sold in the dry-leaf or plant form that is commonly used for recreational use.

Patients will need a certification from a physician stating that they suffer from one or more of the approved medical conditions to purchase medical marijuana from an approved dispensary. They will also need to register with the state and purchase a valid ID card.

Next year, medical marijuana will not only offer Pennsylvanians the opportunity for a safer form of effective pain relief, but may also offer the state a hopeful first step in the fight against the opioid crisis. Pennsylvania deserves this chance to reclaim lives from the relentless grip of addiction.

Bruce Nicholson, M.D., is a pain management physician who was a member of the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board that will provide input to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Userpainmd@aol.com