VERNON - Michael was only in his 20s when he was first prescribed opiates for chronic pain. His condition — severe osteoarthritis — isn’t going to go away, which means that first scrip for opioid medication has become a daily necessity to manage the pain. And he hates it.
“I’m self conscious about it,” says Michael, who asked only to be referred to by his first name. “I think ‘am I addicted?’ It’s a dependency. It doesn’t feel good to think I can’t go without it.”
An average day would consist of a dose of oxycodone, plus an average of two percocets to cope with the pain. Opiates like these are highly addictive and can have short and long term side effects, including liver damage, nausea, and substance use disorders. There is also the possibility of overdosing.
But a medical marijuana company that recently opened storefronts in Vernon and Salmon Arm is offering hope for patients like Michael. Through its Opiate Substitution Program, which has already been running for a while in Vancouver and Toronto, Eden Medicinal Society wants to help people kick dangerous opioid addictions while also providing a foundation for research.
The company’s national administrative director Brittney Hutnik, reached by phone in Toronto, says they have roughly 20 to 30 people in the program right now, and are looking for eligible participants in Vernon and Salmon Arm.
Eden started out in 2011 in Vancouver’s downtown east side, and Hutnik says they’ve already made a difference there switching people from opiates to medical marijuana.
“We want to help with the opioid epidemic,” Hutnik says. “We wanted to serve as a support group for people and offer a safe place for them to find help with a natural form of medicine.”
Participants in the program typically receive one cannabis capsule a day — free of charge — and are asked to report weekly on any improvements they are seeing, such as better appetite, improved sleeping, or a reduction in the amount of opiate medication they are taking.
Replacing opiates with marijuana appears to be a fairly cutting edge approach. Eden Medicinal Society has been pioneering the method for several years and Hutnik says they’ve seen positive results for many people.
“It helps break the habit,” she says. “It takes away the side effects (of opiates) while also treating the area of pain.”
A growing body of research seems to back up the strategy. Last year, a University of B.C. study found that using marijuana could help people addicted to opioids kick their habits.
A partnership is also underway between Eden and UBC to study the effects of replacing opiates with cannabis.
Some may be dubious of the strategy, given its newness and modest — but growing — body of evidence, however Denise Brennan, Eden’s community outreach coordinator based in Vancouver, says it’s doing much more good for people than harm.
“This is a survival issue, this is an epidemic,” she says of the opioid crisis. “If this (program) has the opportunity to help people with a minimal, if even negligible chance to harm, it is worth doing the research on. The risks with an opioid addiction are significantly more severe."
Opioids are commonly prescribed for pain management, and Brennan says many people get hooked on them following legitimate prescriptions. If their doctor stops prescribing the medication, individuals with a dependency may seek out illicit opioids, opening themselves to even greater risks of overdose.
“We’re seeing opioid addiction touching the lives of teachers, crossing guards, everyone, and a lot of people are suffering silently,” she says.
And it’s not just a big city problem, which is why Eden decided to expand to smaller cities like Vernon and Salmon Arm.
“We’re seeing it reach out into smaller communities,” Brennan says.
Michael was one of the first participants in the program. He’s not from Vernon, but his story echoes those of opiate users across the country. When he found out about Eden’s substitution program earlier this year, he ran it by his doctors and specialists and they agreed to give it a try. Michael can’t work full time due to his health issues, so being able to get cannabis for free through the program was a big plus.
So far, he hasn’t been able to stop taking oxycodone completely, but no longer has to take any percocet.
“All of a sudden to go from two percocets a day to none was huge,” he says.
With more time in the program, he’s hopeful that he might be able to get off opioids for good.
“It’s given me insight to know that I can actually get away from them. I feel more capable, more hopeful that I’m not a slave to this medication,” he says.
To get involved in the program, patients have to meet a number of requirements and be willing to visit the dispensary regularly to pick up their medicine and make contact with staff.
“We want a group of people who need help and can provide documentation that they have been on opioids or are suffering withdrawals. There is a process to it,” Hutnik says.
Eden doesn’t make any money off the program, they simply see it as a way to give back to the community.
“If you are reading this article and it resonates with you, or someone you know, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org,” Hutnik says.
My Eden is located in downtown Vernon on 30 Avenue.
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