Should Opioids Be Sold Over-The-Counter?

By Crystal Lindell, PNN Columnist

There are currently two opioid crises going on. Too many people are dying of overdoses and too many chronic pain patients are being denied the medications they need to function. 

I have a solution for both — make hydrocodone and other opioid medications available over-the-counter without a prescription.

Yes, I know the idea of adding more opioids to the overdose crisis sounds counter-intuitive. But hear me out, because this is the solution that both pain patients and illegal drug users should be fighting for.

In short, it would make it much easier for pain patients to treat their symptoms, while also providing a safe supply for those dealing with addiction.

But isn’t hydrocodone dangerous and addictive? Well yes, it is. But so is alcohol and so is tobacco. So let’s compare.

According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths annually in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke. As for alcohol, the CDC says it causes about 88,000 deaths per year.

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How does that compare to hydrocodone? According to the DEA, of the 1,826 hydrocodone exposures reported to poison control centers in 2016, only two resulted in deaths. That’s right, two.

Another report by the CDC estimates there were 3,199 overdose deaths involving hydrocodone in 2016. But many of those deaths involved other drugs and we don’t know whether the pills were prescribed or not.  

Both estimates pale in comparison to the number of people dying from alcohol and tobacco.  

Yes, the number of deaths might go up if hydrocodone is sold over-the-counter. However, if you factor in how many lives we could save, we would come out far ahead.  

And you know what? The acetaminophen found in hydrocodone products like Vicodin could cause an overdose before the hydrocodone does.  

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“The scientifically and medically accepted amount to produce a fatal overdose of hydrocodone is 90 mg. Thus, 18 (5mg) Vicodin pills can lead to an overdose,” explains an addiction recovery website.

“This already puts an individual far above the liver’s tolerance of acetaminophen at 5,400 mg, meaning an individual would experience two separate overdoses if they managed to consume this many pills.”  

Although opioid tolerance can greatly impact how much would be needed to cause an overdose, the fact remains that the acetaminophen might actually be the most dangerous part of the medication. The solution for that? Sell hydrocodone over-the-counter without the acetaminophen.   

Patients Turning to Street Drugs

How do we save lives by giving people more access to drugs? To answer that you have to understand how people are actually dying as a result of the opioid crisis.  

Here’s a hint: it’s not usually caused by hydrocodone. 

First, the misguided fight against the opioid epidemic has led to many doctors refusing to prescribe any opioid medications. Unfortunately, taking medications away from people who need them to function doesn’t somehow result in them magically fighting through the pain. Instead, it just pushes them to take more acetaminophen or some dangerous illegal drug that we’re trying to curb.  

When that happens, people are left to find illegal alternatives — and what they discover is that heroin and illicit fentanyl are actually cheaper than hydrocodone sold on the black market.  

Our system of prohibition is forcing pain patients and illegal drug users to turn to street drugs. We are doing something wrong when it’s easier and cheaper to take heroin or fentanyl than it is to take hydrocodone.  

Making hydrocodone over-the-counter would create a safe supply and would undoubtedly save a lot of lives. It would also have the added benefit of saving patients a lot of money on doctor visits.   

We are at a point when the war on drugs is doing more harm than good for everyone. It’s time for us to consider more radical solutions to these issues. And making hydrocodone available over-the-counter should be at the top of that list.  

Decriminalize Opioids

Thankfully, the country seems to be moving in this direction somewhat. Cannabis is being legalized recreationally, as everyone realizes how pointless marijuana prohibition is. And just this month, Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang announced his proposal to decriminalize opioids.  

“We need to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of opioids,” Yang says on his website. “Other countries, such as Portugal, have done so, and have seen treatment go up and drug deaths and addiction go down. When caught with a small quantity of any opioid, our justice system should err on the side of providing treatment.” 

No, Yang is not likely to win. And no, his proposal doesn’t go far enough. But it’s a start — and will hopefully start to shift the conversation.  

Is there anything we can do as patients to help this cause? Honestly, I believe there is. I constantly see pain patients and advocacy groups post disparaging comments about people who use drugs illegally. I understand why it’s easy to blame them for the crackdown on opioids. But they aren’t the ones who put the new regulations in place — for that you can blame the CDC, DEA and FDA.  

Instead of fighting illegal users, we should be trying to work with them as part of a common cause — decriminalization and legalization. It’s a fight we can all get behind.  We can post about that stance online and we can tell our loved ones why it’s important to us. We can also tell our elected officials. You can reach your federal representatives in the House here, and in the Senate here.

If we all take up this cause together, there is real hope we can make progress.  

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She eats too much Taco Bell, drinks too much espresso, and spends too much time looking for the perfect pink lipstick. She has hypermobile Ehlers Danlos syndrome. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

‘Cannabis Tourism’ Linked to More Fatal Accidents

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Has marijuana legalization made driving more dangerous?  There have been conflicting claims over the years that states where cannabis is legal have more car crashes. And one recent study found that over half of medical cannabis users drive while impaired.

A new study adds a little more clarity to the issue.

Researchers at Monash University in Australia looked at traffic fatalities in three U.S. states where recreational cannabis was legalized (Colorado, Washington and Oregon), and in eight neighboring states and British Columbia.

They found there was an average of one additional traffic fatality for every million residents. That may not sound like much, but when you consider there were 27 million people in the affected areas, it adds up to 170 additional deaths in the first six months after legalization.

Many of the additional deaths were attributed to “cannabis tourism” in which people in neighboring states and provinces purchased recreational cannabis in legalized states and then drove home while under the influence.

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"The results suggest that legalizing the sale of cannabis for recreational use can lead to a temporary increase in traffic fatalities in legalizing states. This spills over into neighboring jurisdictions through cross-border sales, trafficking, or cannabis tourists driving back to their state of residence while impaired,” says lead author Tyler Lane, PhD, a postdoctoral research Fellow at Monash.

"Our findings suggest that policymakers should consult with neighboring jurisdictions when liberalizing cannabis policy to mitigate any deleterious effects."

Because the increase in fatalities was temporary, Lane believes it could be due to an initial “celebratory response to legalization” that contributes to cannabis tourism. His study was published in the journal Addiction.

Fatalities Drop in Medical Cannabis States

While fatalities rose in states with recreational cannabis, Lane notes that previous research has found a decrease in traffic fatalities in states that legalized medical marijuana. That may be because patients may be substituting cannabis for alcohol and other controlled substances used to relieve symptoms.

“There seem to be differences between medicinal and recreational user consumption patterns. Medicinal users have a tendency to substitute, but recreational users are more likely to treat alcohol and cannabis as complements and use them together,” Lane said in an email to PNN. 

“Because marijuana on its own is less impairing than alcohol, and combined used is much more impairing than either in isolation, it suggests that when people substitute alcohol for cannabis (in the medicinal use context), they will still be impaired, but to a much lower degree than if they were still using alcohol.” 

This “harm reduction role” of medical cannabis was noted in a 2016 Canadian study that found patients reduced their use of alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drugs when cannabis was taken for medical reasons. 

Medical marijuana is currently legal in 33 states and Washington DC, and ten states allow its recreational use.

UK and Canada Legalizing Cannabis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

There’s a lot of hype this week about Canada becoming the second and largest country to legalize recreational marijuana. The first was Uruguay.

But the bigger news for the pain community may be in the United Kingdom, which has some of the strictest marijuana laws in Europe. Home Secretary Sajid Javid made a surprise announcement last week that medical cannabis products would be rescheduled on November 1 and become available by prescription to treat chronic pain, epilepsy and chemotherapy-induced nausea.

Javid agreed to review the scheduling of medical cannabis in June, after a public outcry over the seizure of CBD oil flown into Heathrow Airport for a 12-year old boy who has epilepsy. Although the oil primarily contained cannabidiol – the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – it was still technically illegal under UK drug laws.

“I stressed the importance of acting swiftly to ensure that where medically appropriate, these products could be available to be prescribed to patients,” Javid said in a statement.

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“I have been clear that this should be achieved at the earliest opportunity whilst ensuring that the appropriate safeguards were in place to minimise the risks of misuse and diversion.”

Javid was also clear he has no intention of supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana in the UK. Smoking cannabis in any form will also remain illegal. Even so, it was a big step forward for marijuana supporters..  

“This is a major victory for our campaign and will mean a lot of people will have a much better quality of life,” Clark French, a multiple sclerosis patient and cannabis activist, told Leafly.

“It does look that this could be the most open, accessible medical cannabis policy in Europe, if they get it right and we keep guiding them in the right directions,” said Jon Liebling of United Patients Alliance, a medical marijuana advocacy group.    

The rollout of CBD-based medicines in the UK will go slowly. It could take up to a year before the National Health Service comes up with guidelines to govern the distribution of CBD-based products. Initially, only medical specialists will be allowed to prescribe cannabis, although the guidelines are expected to eventually include general practitioners.

Activists are urging the Home Office to allow medical cannabis for all patients, not just those with pain, epilepsy or nausea.

“We do believe that everybody should have access,” said Liebling. "When you're talking about cannabis as a medicine, you really do have to compare the risks associated with cannabis that we're aware of versus the risks of those drugs that patients are already taking.” 

Legalization Worries Canadian Medical Association

Medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001 and about 330,000 Canadians are registered and already have access to it.  But some health officials are less than enthused about the October 17 legalization of recreational cannabis.

"Given the known and unknown health hazards of cannabis, any increase in use of recreational cannabis after legalization, whether by adults or youth, should be viewed as a failure of this legislation," wrote Dr. Diane Kelsall, interim Editor-in-Chief, in an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Kelsall points to the stampede of Canadian and American companies looking to get into the cannabis industry and predicts many will brazenly advertise their products to young people.

“Cannabis companies may initially focus on attracting current consumers from black-market sources, but eventually, to maintain or increase profits, new markets will be developed as is consistent with the usual behaviour of a for-profit company. Marketing efforts may include encouraging current users to increase their use or enticing a younger demographic. The track record for tobacco producers has not been encouraging in this regard, and it is unlikely that cannabis producers will behave differently,” Kelsall warned.

Kelsall said the Canadian government needs to carefully track cannabis use and should have the courage to amend the law if problems arise.

DEA: Decision Not Made on Marijuana Legalization

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is considering, but has not yet made a final decision on whether to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II controlled substance, a move that would essentially make medical marijuana legal in all 50 states.

Last week two media outlets, the Santa Monica Observer and the Denver Post published reports speculating that marijuana could be rescheduled sometime this summer. The Observer even set a date for the announcement – August 1st – and cited an unnamed “Los Angeles based DEA Attorney” as the source of the information.

"Whatever the law may be in California, Arizona or Utah or any other State, because of Federal preemption this will have the effect of making THC products legal with a prescription, in all 50 states," the Observer quoted the DEA lawyer as saying.

The two stories fueled rampant speculation in blogs and on social media that a rescheduling of marijuana was imminent. Snopes.com even published its own take on the rumors, calling them “unproven.”

“There is as yet no indication that the information published on the topic was accurate, and there has been no official confirmation the DEA would moving in that direction on 1 August 2016,” Snopes said.

“We don’t have anything official to report,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne confirmed to Pain News Network.

Like many rumors, there is some truth in the details. In a letter sent several months ago to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and seven other U.S. senators, a DEA official said the agency was finally getting around to making a decision on a five year old petition to reschedule marijuana.

“And in that letter we said we hoped to have a decision around July first. That’s certainly not a deadline, that’s just neighborhood ballpark, around that time. So people are getting antsy as the time is getting nearer,” said Payne, adding that DEA would not be making the decision alone.

“The agency that determines whether or not something is a medicine is the FDA, not the DEA. That’s why we have to rely on their portion of an in-depth study to determine whether or not something should be rescheduled or essentially determined to be a medicine. And if the FDA rules something is not a medicine, we’re bound by that. We cannot move it ourselves. We can’t overrule or override FDA on that,” said Payne.

The DEA has already received a recommendation from the FDA on whether to reschedule marijuana, but has not disclosed it. In the past, both agencies have resisted any attempt to legalize marijuana at the federal level, even as dozens of states moved to legalize medical marijuana.

In 2011, the DEA rejected a similar petition, saying “the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy.”

Marijuana is currently classified as Schedule I drug – along with heroin and LSD – because it is considered to have no medical benefit and has a high potential for abuse. Moving it into the Schedule II classification, along with opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, could potentially make marijuana available by prescription in all 50 states.    

Such a decision would upend the $40 billion medical marijuana industry, which is mostly composed of small companies and dispensaries that have created a niche for themselves while dealing with a cornucopia of state laws and municipal regulations. Rescheduling would open the door for pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies to get into the marijuana business.

"Schedule II would be a nightmare for the cannabis industry," Andrew Ittleman, a lawyer for a Miami law firm that advises marijuana companies, said in Inc.

Legalizing Marijuana? Don’t Forget its Medical Use

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

At least half a dozen states may be joining Colorado and Washington in the full legalization of marijuana. As a medical marijuana patient in Rhode Island, that has never been my battle. I have tried to stay focused on improving medical marijuana laws in Rhode Island and 23 other states, such as expanding the conditions for which it can be prescribed to include chronic pain and other medical issues.

It is mind boggling to me that some states have not yet approved marijuana’s medical use, but seem to be jumping right into legalization, most likely because they see it as a way to generate tax revenue.

We must hold onto the medical programs and be sure they are not mixed into the rules for full legalization. That would be like allowing medication from the pharmacy available to anyone to enjoy for pleasure. This is our medicine.

I have no problem with others having the pleasure of using cannabis socially, but let’s make sure we maintain the integrity of the medical programs.

This is our vision for every state in this country in the near future:

1) Medical marijuana is approved in all states and it includes reciprocity from state to state so we are safe to medicate legally when we travel.

2) Patients qualify when their doctors confirm they have a need and cannabis is no longer limited to specific conditions. There are many less common ones that can be treated effectively with this medication. 

3) Patients have a choice of growing, which is both therapeutic and helpful for those who find strains they are compatible with.

4) Each state offers compassion centers or dispensaries that are strategically placed so all have access within a reasonable distance.

5) Prices at these centers are affordable and on a sliding scale. Many who are afflicted with health issues already have massive medical bills. We do not want to have the mindset of making a large profit off the sale of their medication.

6) When all states are legal, we then conquer the battle of being reimbursed for our medicine from our insurance companies.

7) Allow centers to grow the plants they need to accommodate patients with all of the various strains. 

      8) Allow centers to sell various forms of medical marijuana, including dry product, oils, tinctures, topicals, edibles, etc.

      9) Allow a delivery system for those seriously ill and a gifting program to those financially unable to pay.

     10) All centers grow organically, keeping us safe from pesticides and other chemicals.

     11) People using medical marijuana will have the legal right not be drug tested, discriminated or fired from employment.

As the demand for full legalization continues to spread across the country, please help your state maintain the integrity of its medical program. Medical marijuana is intended to help us with quality of life, not to make a huge profit from. Let those that are using it for recreation be the ones to pay taxes and bring in the revenue for your state.

Let’s keep this medicine affordable for those in need.  For those that do not need it for medical reasons, be glad you are able to use cannabis socially and not have to face issues like us!

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis.  Ellen and her husband Stuart are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana or to contact the Smith's, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

How to Advocate for Medical Marijuana Legalization

By Ellen Lenox Smith, Columnist

I wish everyone in the U.S. had safe and affordable access to medical marijuana. Although legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, many of you still live in states where cannabis is illegal and may want to know what you can do to help expedite the process of legalization.

I thought it might be helpful to share our experience with you to help you turn your state into a more compassionate state.  My husband and I are the co-directors of medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation. We are very proud of the foundation for supporting the use of this medication and for taking a positive stand.

So here are our suggestions:

1) Google your state’s medical marijuana laws and become familiar with where your state stands.

2) If a bill has been submitted, find the names of the legislators that submitted it. Contact them and request a meeting, leave a phone message, write a letter or offer to testify. The goal is to begin establishing a relationship with this person, to let them know of your willingness to help get their legislation passed.  

3) Remember that you are in an illegal state, so you want to share the success you had while living or visiting a legal state. You do not want to take any chance getting arrested!

4) You will find that telling your story is the key. Try to find others who will also be able to share how this medication helped them too.  Share your medical condition, how it affects your daily life, and how using medical marijuana made a difference.

5) If you are able to attend a hearing, be sure to dress like you are going to work. Keep the language clean and show them that you are an everyday person trying to live life with major medical difficulties. You do not want to be perceived as a recreational drug user, so dress and act with a serious demeanor.

6) Along with sharing your story, you also need to discuss the qualifying conditions for treatment in the bill. Some states where marijuana is legal do not allow cannabis to be prescribed for chronic pain. If you don’t get the correct wording in there now for chronic pain, it may never qualify. Therefore, it is very important to include the following language in your bill:

A chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following:

  • Cachexia or wasting syndrome
  • Severe, debilitating, chronic pain
  • Severe nausea
  • Seizures, including but not limited to those characteristic of epilepsy
  • Severe and persistent muscle spasms, including but not limited to those characteristic of multiple sclerosis or Crohn's disease
  • Agitation related to Alzheimer's Disease

If they want you to testify, prepare your speech before your arrive. Consider putting your main points on a card to talk from, instead of just reading from a paper out loud. Eye contact can really help.

Stay on point. Time is limited and you must respect this or they will shut you off to allow others time to speak. Share details about your medical condition, what effect it has on your daily living and how medical marijuana has made life more tolerable for you. Ask them to have a heart and help you and all the others in your state.

I always end with: “You never know what life might bring you next. I didn’t ask to have to cope with this condition. Please show your compassion.”

If there is no bill under consideration, then your work will be a bit different. You need find out if a bill had been submitted in the past and locate the sponsor. You should contact that person or persons and tell them you are ready to advocate and ask what they need from you to help get the bill reintroduced.

Whether you have a bill submitted or are working to get one started, you want to keep the topic alive in the media, so write letters to the editor, send a written story to news and radio stations, telling them you would like to share your story and why you want to see this legalized. You will be surprised how they can respond!

Another thing you can do is also contact us via the U.S. Pain Foundation to see if we have any ambassadors in your state that have expressed interest in advocating. We are happy to connect you if we have them listed. Email us at ellen@uspainfoundation.org or stu@uspainfoundation.org

Good luck and may medical marijuana soon be legal for all.

Ellen Lenox Smith suffers from Ehlers Danlos syndrome and sarcoidosis. Ellen and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical marijuana advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition.

For more information about medical marijuana, visit their website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Americans Recognize Medical Value of Marijuana

By Pat Anson, Editor

The perception of marijuana users as pot heads and lazy stoners may finally be changing to a new one: Patient.

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, the medicinal value of marijuana is the #1 reason why a majority of Americans now favor its legalization.

The survey of 1,500 adults found that 53% favor legalization, a dramatic shift from a decade earlier when only 32%  favored legalization.

When asked what was the main reason they support legalization now, 41% cited its medicinal benefits. Another 36% said marijuana was no worse than other drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Nearly half of U.S. states have legalized medical marijuana and four states -- Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska -- and the District of Columbia have passed measures to legalize its recreational use. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance with no accepted medical use, but in recent years has stepped back enforcement efforts in states where it is legal.

But the stigma long associated with marijuana has discouraged physicians from prescribing it and kept pharmaceutical companies from doing extensive research about its medical benefits.

Only two prescription drugs based on cannabinoids – the active ingredients in marijuana — have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Nabilone is a synthetic cannabinoid approved for treating nausea in cancer patients. Marinol is also used to treat nausea, and as an appetite stimulant. Both drugs can still be  prescribed “off label” by physicians to treat other conditions.

Some limited studies have found that marijuana is effective in relieving chronic pain and some of the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis.

"Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation," the Institute of Medicine said in a report.

"Smoked marijuana, however, is a crude THC delivery system that also delivers harmful substances. The psychological effects of cannabinoids, such as anxiety reduction, sedation, and euphoria can influence their potential therapeutic value. Those effects are potentially undesirable for certain patients and situations and beneficial for others." 

Efforts to get a medical marijuana spray approved as a drug to treat cancer pain suffered a setback early this year when GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: GWPH) reported the results of a clinical trial showing that Sativex worked no better than a placebo in relieving cancer pain.

Sativex is getting a "fast track review" from the FDA to treat cancer pain. It is estimated that 420,000 cancer patients in the U.S. suffer from pain that is not well controlled by opioid pain medications.