Marijuana, Pain Relief and the Facts

On a daily basis patients of mine come in for office visits complaining of wear and tear injuries, as well as aches and pains, and their methods of dealing with chronic pain. As we all know, aging is a part of the normal life process.

For instance, as we approach 70 years old we typically lose three quarters of our functioning kidney cells (nephrons) but do well with our limited reserve as long as we do not constantly call on that reserve. When we take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen to relieve pain we are challenging that reserve leading seniors to look for alternatives. Opioids, even when appropriate, have become taboo so alternatives are being searched for.

Medical marijuana has become a very hot topic recently.  It is being heavily marketed as a pain relief alternative in several forms.  However, what little legitimate research has been conducted indicates it is not very good at relieving non cancer related chronic pain.

Not a day goes by when several patients reveal they are using cannabis products obtained out of state for pain relief with no consideration of how it interacts with the medications they are already taking. Recently, strong public relations campaigns for legalizing medical marijuana have led to its legalization in different forms, in various states, even if it doesn’t work. A select group of investors have positioned themselves to make vast sums of money from a product with little documented upside and potentially unknown downsides.

At the same time that medical marijuana enters mainstream medicine there is a similar legislative and marketing push to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Once again, a well-financed lobby of investors is trying to sell the concept of marijuana being less troublesome than legalized tobacco or alcohol. In the last few weeks there have been several articles appearing in reputable medical journals and periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and New Yorker magazine all examining the known results of liberalizing marijuana use in three states.

First of all, today’s marijuana is far stronger and potent than the “love generation’s” weed of the 1960’s with a higher percentage of the hallucinogen THC. To that point, states that have legalized marijuana have seen a tripling of visits to the emergency department for psychotic behavior. Also, violent crime and murders have tripled in many jurisdictions. A growing body of evidence indicates auto accidents have increased as a direct result of marijuana’s use.

Medically speaking, there is little research evaluating marijuana as a drug. Many questions remain.  What is the minimal dosage to create an effect? What is the dosage that can cause medical illness? How does the mechanism of delivery affect the final effects such as smoking versus vaping versus eating the product? Beyond the stoners’ credo of “start low and go slow” there is little data to evaluate the product as a pharmaceutical drug and or how it can interact with other drugs prescribed for you.

I am far from an anti-marijuana critic. I’d just like to know what I’d be getting in to before I consider hallucinating. It seems to me that before we liberalize marijuana use, the product needs to be put through the type of research and scrutiny the old Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put a product through before it was approved for public use.

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A Clinician’s View of the Opioid Crisis

“Do Not Get Caught.” seems to be the real rule of the law in S. Florida, where I live.

I was trained to limit the use of controlled substances, narcotics, hypnotics and sedatives. Their use can affect consciousness, ability to drive a car and work.  More severe consequences include respiratory depression and overdose from too high of a dosage or mixing too many medications and over the counter items.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation, medicine’s good housekeeping seal of approval authority, along with major medical organizations have accused clinicians of under treating pain. “Pain” is the fifth vital sign, they said.

This was accompanied by professional society leadership and academic researchers receiving grants from pharmaceutical companies touting the newer longer acting pain medications which “have very little addictive potential”. We were then informed we would be receiving evaluations and scores of our treatments of pain which would influence our reimbursement if we under treated pain.

In my current concierge medical practice I see 10 or fewer patients per day. In my previous general practice I saw 2- – 30 patients per day. I could go days without prescribing a narcotic pain medication. In most cases when I wrote out a script for a narcotic pain medication it was for a patient with a severe chronic pain problem, seeing a specialist for that problem, and requiring a pain pill because there were few effective alternatives. The patient visits to doctors and physical therapists and massage specialists and other alternative pain therapies were well documented in the medical record and mostly unsuccessful in attempts to relieve the pain.

This contrasts markedly with the opening of pain clinics in nearby counties with their own in-house prescribing pharmacies. One or two physicians wrote thousands of pain pill prescriptions per day. Patients lined up around the block to see these employed physicians of the pain clinic with many arriving in cars from other states. The cash flow generated was so vast that the clinics needed private security to protect the profits. Many of the security hired were off duty city and county police officers trying to supplement their income.

It’s hard to imagine that law enforcement and the DEA, were unable to recognize the difference between pill distributing centers and legitimate practices prescribing medications on a limited basis to individuals with documented needs. City, County and State governments gladly accepted the tax benefits, occupational license fees and pharmaceutical license fees from these sham clinics while drug dealers drove in and out of our state to obtain prescription pain medications for sale in their home towns. Of course the blame for this was placed on the doctors and dentists.

The State of Florida tightened up its laws and somehow law enforcement was given the tools to see and eradicate what was occurring right under their very noses. As prescription drugs dried up, the Mexican drug cartels got smart and flooded the market with cheap strong heroin. It was obviously the fault of the physicians and legitimate pharmacies that white working class people were buying plastic bags full of dope and inserting needles into their veins to avoid the pain of life.

As drug addiction soared, City and County Governments found it in their hearts to sit as zoning boards allowed drug rehabilitation centers to open up in the heart of their communities. There was little or no effective investigation of who was running these clinics and or their previous experience, methods and or success rates. If you want to read about where the soaring number of narcotic overdoses occur in our community – follow the zoning board’s placement of rehab centers and sobriety houses. What better way to increase your drug overdoses than to encourage unsuccessful addicts to come to your community and leave their money and their family’s money to improve the tax base and create new headaches for EMS and police officers?

Somewhere there should have been a higher level of thought by our elected and appointed officials about the consequences of bringing hundreds of drug dependent individuals into our area before they permitted these facilities to open.

Last week my advanced pancreatic cancer patient with severe back pain tried to purchase a controlled substance prescribed by his oncologist to relieve his suffering. Six pharmacies no longer stocked the product due to their fear of liability. It took hours to find a pharmacy that would order the medication for the patient. Physicians, pharmacists and law enforcement accessing our state narcotic registration website clearly can see that this patient only uses his medications as prescribed by one physician. This patient, and others like him, are victims of the government legitimizing of pain pill mills and drug rehabilitation centers in their communities.

As a physician we all have our failures in this area as well. I painfully recall the doctor’s wife I sent to a disciplined pain doctor to wean her off narcotics prescribed by a rheumatologist, urologist and gastroenterologist for legitimate reasons documented by tests and biopsies. I refilled the prescriptions for her convenience and ease never dreaming I was contributing to her problems.

I feel for my colleagues in the Emergency Department and in orthopedic offices having to daily differentiate acute pain requiring intervention with controlled substances as opposed to individuals with drug seeking personalities. This being said, the opioid crisis was caused by the most trusted members of the academic medical community in cooperation with the medical inspection and certifying agencies in concert with public officials and law enforcement looking the other way. They all made a great deal of money at the expense of the public. Now as they struggle to clean it up they give us medical and recreational marijuana.