cannabis for opioid dependency

Overcoming Opioid Dependency with Cannabis: A Personal Story of Hope 8 Years Later

by | Mar 18, 2024

cannabis for opioid dependency

Written by Kristina Etter

Kristina is a digital content creator and designer. She has a talent for creating engaging and informative content that resonates with our professional audience. Kristina’s passion for the cannabis industry stems from her belief that it has the potential to revolutionize the world in many ways, and has a personal testimony of cannabis success.

A quick search of statistical data reveals a fervent debate: does cannabis help reduce opioid dependency, addiction, and overdose? Depending on where you look and who did the study, the answer varies wildly.

However, there are tens of thousands of people, like my husband, who’d like a word. Today is a holiday in our house.

Eight years ago today, March 18th, 2016 – we witnessed first-hand the miracle of embracing cannabis, and I know without doubt – that cannabis can end opiate addiction.

What we learned, what we saw, what we did changed everything. It changed me, and there’s no going back.

How It All Began: The Personal Impact of Opioid Dependency

I was raised in the rural Midwest; prior to 2012, if you mentioned “opiate addict” to me, my mind’s eye conjured up images of homeless, jobless drug addicts with needle marks all over their arms. However, when I met my husband that year, I quickly learned that’s a vicious stereotype that only stigmatizes a growing number of people facing a serious health issue – prescribed opioid dependency and addiction.

His journey started in 2007 with a shoulder scope and prescribed pain medications after years of hard factory labor. Then, another scope and rotator cuff surgery in 2009, with the grand finale in 2011 – a cervical neck fusion at C5-6-7. Each time, more and more opiates were prescribed.

cannabis for opioid dependency
My husband’s hometown doctor spent 5 years in prison for his illegal prescribing practices.

On Valentine’s Day in 2013, my husband proposed marriage only minutes after returning home from an ER visit due to chronic inflammation and pain in his neck. I attended every doctor’s appointment from that day forward. I needed to understand why my fiance was taking these drugs – every day, several times a day.

We heard the same speech from multiple doctors in two different states, “Mr. Etter, due to the damage in your spine, opioids will likely always be a part of your pain management regimen.”

Cortisone shots, radiofrequency ablation, physical therapy, and monthly visits to the pain clinic to keep his pain under control. MRIs, CAT scans, and x-rays put burdens on us – not only from the aspect of medical expenses but also absenteeism at work, wear and tear on our vehicles, and the time lost from sitting in countless waiting rooms.

By 2014, the doctors had prescribed four hydrocodone and four Percocet a day, and he was swapping out fentanyl patches twice weekly. In addition to the concoction of opiates, they also prescribed Flexeril for muscle relaxation and gabapentin for nerve pain, plus regular NSAIDs around the clock for inflammation.

And yet, he still had pain. Every. Single. Day.

Enough is Enough

After burying three of my immediate family members due to cancer, I began to look at our lifestyle, and what I saw terrified me. We had just entered our 40s, and we were dying.

I had a high-stress corporate job and was dependent on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications just to get through each day.

We drank too much booze, ate too much food, and relied too much on modern chemistry to fix all that ails us. Everything we did, we did in excess, and it was taking a toll.

Nothing in our life was contributing to a better outcome. We were sabotaging ourselves. Our marriage, our health, and our lives were at stake.

So, one cold January morning, I woke up and said, “Enough is enough.”

I packed my car and told my husband, “I’m going south until there’s no snow, and then I’m headed west – I’ll let you know where I end up.”

When the brakes went out of my car, I was on the north side of Denver – stranded, alone, and completely broke.

Making Human Connections in Strange Places

The next six weeks were an adventure in survival for me. I had gone from a six-figure salary, government benefits, and a penthouse apartment to homeless in Denver. It was a brutal wake-up call that forced me to realign my priorities.

I knew no one in the entire state of Colorado, let alone Denver. I was completely alone.

Yet, a simple conversation between strangers in a small diner presented my first chance to work in the cannabis industry. Although I jumped at the opportunity, the hurdles to getting licensed in Colorado when my ID said I was from Minnesota (and I was homeless) were just short of impossible.

But as they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and I started working as a budtender at The Smokin’ Gun Apothecary in February of 2016.

Six weeks later, I called my husband, who was still in Minnesota, and I said, “We have hope.”

cannabis for opioid dependency
Ending opioid dependency with cannabis.

Drawing a Line in the Sand

My husband joined me in Denver, and on March 18th, 2016, we ceremoniously pushed 13 bottles of pills into the trash with a conscious decision to take back our lives.

We quit drinking. We cleaned up our diet. We started hiking and exercising.

And, we consumed copious amounts of cannabis, journaling the effects, writing it all down, and tracking our results. (I really wish Jointly was a thing back then!)

We took responsibility for our health by being acutely aware of everything we were doing, what we were consuming, and how we were living.

There was nothing “mindless” about our approach. The results?

My husband ended his opiate addiction without a single symptom of withdrawal. I no longer struggle with depression or anxiety – I have a different toolset now. We lost 150 pounds and kept it off. We are in the best health of our lives.

And the best part? When my husband takes a little too much THC, I don’t have to worry about his respiratory system shutting down in his sleep.

Yet, Cannabis Still Isn’t Considered a Viable Alternative for Opioid Dependency

Based on the latest statistics, more than 80,000 people die every year due to opioid overdose.

Recovery specialists recommend “less fatal” alternatives to aid in addiction cessation, such as methadone. Yet, mention using cannabis to treat opiate addiction, and we almost always hear, “That’s just exchanging one drug for another.”

In this recent article from STAT News, entitled “The War on Recovery,” – addiction specialists are actually chastising physicians for not using alternative medicines in treatment programs. They state,

“These medicines are cheap and easy to distribute. People who take them use illicit drugs at far lower rates and are at far lower risk of overdose or death. By beating back the cravings and agonizing withdrawal symptoms that result from trying to quit opioids “cold turkey,” methadone and buprenorphine can help people addicted to opioids escape an existence defined by drugs and achieve stable, healthy lives.”

While this article is only the first part of a series, nowhere does it mention anything about embracing cannabis as an opioid dependency treatment and alternative option. Why?

cannabis for opioid dependency
Using cannabis for opioid dependency.

Methadone killed 3200 people last year. So, please, someone explain to me why it is more acceptable to exchange one killer drug for another killer drug, but it’s not ok to aid in recovery with an herb that cannot cause a fatal overdose.

A study published at the end of 2023 by the State of New York and CUNY states, “Patients’ daily opioid dosages were reduced by 47%-51% of the baseline dosages after eight months. In contrast, patients receiving medical cannabis for a shorter duration reduced their initial dosages by just 4%-14%.”

Another study in 2021, published in the Pain Medicine Journal, concluded, “The high rate of cannabis use for chronic pain and the subsequent reductions in opioid use suggest that cannabis may play a harm reduction role in the opioid overdose crisis, potentially improving the quality of life of patients and overall public health.”

In 2019, Dr. Peter Grinspoon penned an article for Harvard University that highlighted obvious declines in opioid prescribing rates in states with legal cannabis based on studies on Medicaid expenditures and research published in JAMA.

What does it take? How many studies do we need? How many people need to speak up? How many more people need to die before we provide non-lethal alternatives? Why must pharmaceutical drugs be the only acceptable path to help our loved ones live their best lives?

It’s Cannabis or Bust

As I look back on the last eight years of my journey and reflect on all that I have learned, witnessed, and experienced, I know there is no going back.

At a time when the cannabis industry is struggling due to over-regulation, banking restrictions, and ridiculous tax codes designed to run them out of business, we continue to wait for the federal government to ease the burden. Yet, I wonder, will it be enough?

In all my interviews this year, I have asked the experts their opinions on the federal legalization position—will rescheduling be enough? While many are grateful for any opportunity to move the needle, others fear the worst. Schedule III holds the potential to mandate pharmaceutical production of cannabinoid-based products – which would completely defeat the cannabis legalization movement.

Yet, as I recently discussed with Kim Stuck at Allay Consulting, the patients in the medical cannabis industry will rebel against the system. Many of us had no problem consuming cannabis before the industry started, and we’ll have no problem consuming cannabis if they try to strip it away.

We cannot unlearn what we’ve learned; we cannot unsee what we’ve seen. It’s cannabis or nothing for us from here on.