‘Cannabis slowly but surely playing role’ in pain treatment, says panelist in Holyoke forum

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HOLYOKE — Marijuana poses nowhere near the dependency problem of nicotine or alcohol, a physician said at a panel discussion Tuesday.

And the only way marijuana acts as a gateway drug is as a gateway away from opioids, the same doctor told an audience at Gateway City Arts on Race Street.

“I just think it’s complete propaganda that it’s a gateway. It’s associated to other drug use, but that doesn’t mean it’s causally related to other drug use….I think cannabis, if anything, is a gateway out,”  Dr. Peter Grinspoon of Massachusetts General Hospital said.

Grinspoon was among panelists during the forum titled “Cannabis and Opioids: Prevention or Treatment.”

A featured topic was use of marijuana as an alternative for pain treatment to opioids, abuse of which for the past several years has attacked Holyoke, the state and the nation as an epidemic.

“I have always held the mantra: It’s your recovery, it’s your decision,” said panelist Jennifer Flanagan of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

Among issues are the devastation of opioids and the accompanying reality that insurance companies don’t cover the medical marijuana prescribed for pain relief, she said.

“But I think that cannabis is slowly but surely playing a role,” Flanagan said.

Other points during the forum were that more research is needed on marijuana’s medical benefits, such as to determine which strains of the plant are effective against which illnesses, and the importance of explaining dosage and the perception-altering effects of marijuana.

For example, people need help to understand how to use marijuana. The drug will make them feel “high,” temporarily affecting how they experience their surroundings and their feelings, said panelist Ezra Parzybok, a cannabis consultant and author.

So the process of integrating marijuana use into peoples’ lives must include counsel about avoiding its intake before driving or going to work, he said.

“It will be a continual, ongoing discovery,” said Parzybok, whose book “Cannabis Consulting: Helping Patients, Parents and Practitioners Understand Medical Marijuana” comes out July 3.

The panel included state Rep. Aaron M. Vega, D-Holyoke, and Dr. Marion McNabb, CEO and co-founder of the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (“C3RN”), of Somerville, which arranged the forum.

Vendors’ tables lined the room’s perimeter and offered information about marijuana uses and products.

Opioids are medications that relieve pain by reducing the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain. Opioids have similar properties to the opium from which they are derived. Drugs in this class include Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet.

Heroin is an opioid synthesized from morphine, a substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant.

Addiction to opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and the subsequent need to keep taking the drug after the prescription expires leads many people to take heroin as a substitute.

Increasing the danger has been the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic hundreds of times more potent than heroin.

The opioid epidemic has claimed over 300,000 lives in the United States since 2000, The New England Journal of Medicine has said.

“We are really in an epidemic,” McNabb said.

Grinspoon said the truth is that not a lot of options for pain relief are available. Chronic pain will strike most individuals at some point at a time people are living longer and the realization is spreading about opioid-addictions’ horrors.

“To me, cannabis is the obvious way to treat people’s chronic pain,” Grinspoon said.

The positive aspects of marijuana are becoming better known. But that has come after decades of misinformation such as that marijuana is as addictive as other substances and that studies must begin with the premise that marijuana is harmful. Other countries like Israel have researched marijuana more objectively than the U.S., he said.

“It is a gateway — it’s a gateway out of addiction,” Grinspoon said of marijuana.

Indeed, said McNabb, the point of the discussion was to explore how marijuana can help in the midst of recognition that opioids have ruined so many lives.

“But we do have the opportunity to create change,” McNabb said.

Gateway City Arts was “thrilled” to host the marijuana discussion, venue co-founder Lori Divine told the audience.

“We’re trying to bring dignity and we’re trying to bring laughter and fun to this wretched world right now,” Divine said, and the crowd applauded.

Vega said Massachusetts’ legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, with regulations, has allowed for progress and the realization that more research is needed.

The learning is continuing about how marijuana can be harvested and cultivated in certain ways to achieve certain results. Marijuana can help some patients but perhaps not others, he said.

“There’s a lot of potential here,” said Vega, including for economic development.

The Paper City nickname for Holyoke in relation to leading the way in paper-making has long since ceased to be the reality, said Marcos A. Marrero, director of the Holyoke Department of Planning and Economic Development.

As the city changes its economy, innovation becomes key. Embracing the marijuana industry and the jobs and tax revenue it brings is an innovation the city is seizing, said Marrero, addressing the audience before the panel began.

“Your presence here is vital in that vertical integration of values. Where will the best strains of cannabis be grown and processed for whatever use, whether medical or recreational? We don’t know. But quality is definitely something we will have to compete on in the future,” Marrero said.

C3RN is a marijuana industry consultant and advocate. The organization describes itself on its website as “a group of like minded cannabis industry, advocacy, academic, public health, clinical, patient, policy, and community experts that embrace open-source principles to drive collaborative science in the cannabis industry.”

By: Mike Plaisance, Mass Live

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