Question the Cannasseur: Transitioning from Opioid Pain Meds to Medical Marijuana

pill bottle of marijuana next to pill bottle of opioids

As the new year begins, many people are looking for ways to improve their lives in the coming months. While some may resolve to lose weight, eat healthier, or save more money, others may be looking at tackling much bigger goals like ending an addiction.

This week on Quora, a reader asks the question, "How should a person safely transition from opioid pain meds to medical marijuana?"

As a journalist, not a doctor, I cannot give anyone medical advice. However, as the wife of a former opiate addict, I am qualified to tell you our story and give you some safety tips based off of what we learned through our journey.

Opiates Were My Gateway to Cannabis

doctor holding leaves and cannabis oil

Indirectly, but had it not been for my husband's 10-year legal addiction to opiates and the havoc they were causing in our lives, I never would've found my calling as a cannabis journalist in Colorado. But to understand why I feel qualified to answer this question, let me provide a little background.

I Married an Addict

spilled bottle of opioid pain meds

When my husband and I met, and later married, I knew he took opiates on a regular basis. He didn't try to hide it; he didn't need to, because he was taking legally prescribed medication to treat chronic pain. I attended his doctor appointments with him and listened to doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist tell him, that opiates would always be a part of his pain management regimen. My husband has a failed spine resulting from falling just days after having cervical neck fusion. Also, he has degenerative disk disease and spinal stenosis. Simply put, his upper spine is a mess.

I continued to attend his appointments at the pain clinics, physical therapy sessions, and even to radiofrequency ablation procedures, which burned the nerve endings in his neck. Unfortunately, regardless of what we tried, his doses of opiates just continually increased. Hydrocodone, Percocet, Fentanyl, Flexeril, Gabapentin, Toradol, and obscene amounts of ibuprofen on top of it all. The cocktail of drugs the 'experts' had my husband taking intended to reduce his pain, but in reality, they created more pain, more health issues, and they changed the man I married.

Month to month we attended appointments, a requirement for getting his prescriptions filled. If his dates didn't line up exactly, withdrawal from his medicines would set in within hours of a missed dose. Withdrawal was ugly, painful, and debilitating.

Our Cannabis Miracle

holding a cannabis plant

In January of 2016, I left my husband in Minnesota and moved to Colorado. In a twist of fate, I fell into the cannabis industry working for a dispensary in Denver. What I learned while working there ultimately saved my husband's life and our marriage.

After six weeks of working in the industry, researching outside of work, and taking a more informed approach to cannabis, I called him and said, "We have hope out here, but you're going to have to trust me, and the opiates stay in Minnesota."

The idea of quitting scares any addict. After experiencing withdrawal once, no one ever wants to experience it again. So, agreeing to stop taking his opiates after almost ten years of addiction was a huge step.

On March 18th, 2016, my husband took his last opiate and never looked back. He didn't experience a single symptom of withdrawal, and he'll be three years opiate-free this spring. Here's how my husband tackled his addiction using cannabis.

Start with Your Doctor

stethoscope and cannabis leaf on a blue background

First and foremost, my husband scheduled an appointment with his regular physician before he left Minnesota and told him exactly what he planned on doing. Which brings me to my disclaimer...always consult with your doctor. They may not agree with your method, but let them know your plan. My husband's Minnesota doctor was skeptical and gave him prescriptions for Klonopin and something else, to deal with the withdrawal. We filled them, but only intended to use them if the cannabis treatment didn't work. (For the record, he never needed them.)

CBD for Withdrawal

stethoscope and cannabis leaf on a blue background

For the first several weeks, CBD was an integral part of avoiding withdrawal. As such, he would take between 300-500mg of various CBD products every day. He would use CBD in any form he could get. A typical day of dosing would look something like this:

  • Mary's Medicinals – "The Remedy" Tincture: He would start every day with 10-15 drops of CBD tincture under his tongue and occasionally throughout the day as he felt he needed it.
  • Mary's Medicinals – CBD Transdermal Gel & Patches: After a shower, he would put CBD gel on the inside of both wrists. Patches are incredibly discreet and work well for medicating in public venues.
  • Stratos – CBD Capsules: The reflex of taking a pill is tough for an addict to get over. By carrying 5-10mg CBD capsules, he could satisfy the urge. Again, in social situations, no one bats an eye when you take a pill in public. Half the population takes prescriptions.
  • Apothecanna – Lotions and Topicals: We would use these products at night, locally rubbed into his neck and shoulders.
  • Various Brands – CBD Edibles: We would get CBD edibles in any form we could find them. He would snack on the candies here and there throughout the day.

THC for Pain

beautiful shot of marijuana plant

While CBD was amazing for curbing the symptoms of withdrawal and reducing inflammation, CBD alone did not help with pain management. Additionally, smoking or vaping cannabis oils also failed to squelch the sensation of pain, although they helped tremendously to improve his mood.

For my husband, THC edibles created the all-over body-numbing sensation most similar to the effects of opioids. Additionally, because of the way edibles are metabolized, the pain-relieving effects lasted longer as well. Today, he uses about 200mg of THC-infused edibles per day in 30-40mg bites.

Experimentation is Part of the Process

marijuana edibles cookies with bud and leaves

Not all cannabis products in the legal market are created equal and not all people react to the various cannabinoid formulations the same way. I recommend keeping a journal until you find the product or formula that works best for you. We kept a notebook and recorded the effects of every product my husband tried.

The most important rule of cannabis experimentation is to keep your doses low and increase slowly. Remember the goal is to eliminate symptoms without being so impaired you can't function. Always start low when trying new products because different formulations can have different effects.

More than Marijuana

heart shaped bowls of healthy foods for a healthy lifestyle

While as a cannabis advocate I would love to give all the kudos to the plant, there's more to it than swapping one substance for another. Just like losing weight or saving money, ending an opiate addiction takes a lifestyle change and determination. Let me give you a few tips we learned through the process:

  • Change your environment. Part of the psychology of addiction is habit. When you do the same thing every day, you get into a pattern. Breaking away from your routine for a week or two can help reduce anxiety because you're not in a familiar environment. You don't have to move out of state like we did but plan for at least a week or two.
  • Change your diet, for the better. I cannot express enough, the better your diet is, the better your body will function, and the better you'll feel throughout the entire process. We eliminated artificial sweeteners, starting eating more whole foods, and we quit drinking.
  • Stay busy, exercise frequently. My husband spent the better part of his days on the disc golf course when he quit taking opiates, and we spent our weekends hiking in the mountains. We made it a point to be doing something and staying busy. On day 10 of no opiates, my husband was hiking Garden of the Gods, feeling fabulous.

Through a responsible approach to cannabis therapy and the lifestyle changes we implemented, not only is my husband three years opiate-free, but we've improved our lives and our health together. Today, neither of us take any prescriptions at all, and we're healthier than we've ever been.

Cannabis can help with ending opiate addiction. I can say this with confidence because I've seen it firsthand. However, as with all significant life changes, it takes effort and determination on behalf of the consumer to make the difference.