Metro-East News

Medical cannabis shop touts plant as alternative to opioids

Michele Lazor participates in a news conference about the benefits of medical cannabis in treating opioid addiction.
Michele Lazor participates in a news conference about the benefits of medical cannabis in treating opioid addiction.

Michele Lazor was on bed rest for about five years, for about 22 to 24 hours a day, and was taking 50 pills a day, she said, to deal with her disease.

Lazor, who is from Troy, suffered from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, in which people “usually have overly flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin,” according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, Ehlers-Danlos gave Lazor a host of illnesses that were difficult for her to treat.

“I did not leave the house unless it was for a doctor’s appointment,” she said. “I couldn’t walk through even the smallest of stores without the aid of a wheelchair or a cane or something. I had essentially lost my life.”

Lazor looked into medical cannabis as a “last-ditch effort” to seek relief from her symptoms, and after three days, she went from 50 pills a day to 12, she said. About 10 pills of Lazor’s old daily pill regimen included opioids, powerful synthetic painkillers that have been the source of a nationwide epidemic of drug abuse and overdoses.

Lazor told her story at Health Central Illinois Alternatives, a medical cannabis dispensary that opened earlier this year in Collinsville. It was part of an event Friday morning to highlight the benefits of medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids.

As medical cannabis grows in popularity across the country, scientific studies have shown that it leads to a reduction in opioid abuse. For example, according to a nationwide study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, in Oct. 2014, “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate... compared with states without medical cannabis laws.”

The study, however, which was funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health, was comprehensive but not conclusive. The authors noted that the “association (between medical cannabis laws and a reduction in deaths from opioids) are speculative and rely on indirect evidence. Further rigorous evaluation of medical cannabis policies, including provisions that vary among states, is required before their wide adoption can be recommended.”

Chris Stone, the CEO of HCI Alternatives, supported using medical cannabis because there hasn’t been a documented case of cannabis overdose; it relieves pain; and it provides “a gateway to get off of the harmful drugs that (patients are) on now.”

“It may help with their pain, but it’s killing them in other areas,” he said.

Stone said medical cannabis binds with the same receptors in the brain that are targeted by opioid painkillers, and that he thought medical cannabis could be used for both opioid (prescription pills) and opiate (heroin) relief, as well as offer a natural medical alternative for the duration of normal opioid treatment schedules and periods of heroin withdrawal.

Using cannabis as a way to wean someone off opioid abuse is similar to medication-assisted treatment, in which patients often take drugs like suboxone to lessen the body’s chemical dependence on stronger opioids, such as fentanyl. But, Stone said, HCI Alternatives would not be treating patients like a treatment center.

“We provide training to our employees in order to provide that information to our customers,” Stone said, but he thought the doctor “is the direct line to the patient in terms of providing them with information.”

Doctors write certifications for patients seeking medical cannabis, and patients then work with HCI Alternatives over a series of meetings to find the strain of cannabis that best suits them.

The dispensary’s goals to decrease opioid abuse with cannabis, however, face a regulatory wall at the Illinois Department of Public Health, which has accepted 12,000 applications for medical cannabis as of Nov. 2.

The list of diagnoses that qualify patients for medical cannabis includes everything from Alzheimer’s disease to wasting syndrome, but as of right now, Illinois does not recognize opioid addiction, or addiction in general, as a reason for medical cannabis, according to Divya Mohan Little, who works at IDPH.

Regardless, Lazor still praised the plant for delivering pain relief. She said that medical cannabis both addressed her disease, which led to a reduction in pain, as well as muffled the symptom of pain itself.

Lazor said she came from a military family, and that initially her parents were against her use of medical cannabis, which she started in March. Now, she said, they support her.

These days, she takes about six to eight pills a day, including medication for her heart and occasional insomnia, as well as a variety of cannabis products. Since starting treatment, she took up dance classes and yoga, and she felt better than she had in a decade, she said. She’s also saving money on fewer doctors’ visits and prescription drugs, she added.

“I got my life back,” she said. “I got my goals back. I’m planning on going back to school in the spring. Medical cannabis saved my life, and I mean that very seriously.”

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel