In recent research from UC San Diego’s Center for Medical Cannabis Research, doctors say they are finding cannabis useful in treating chronic pain and weaning people off of opioids. But they are running into barriers when it comes to advancing that research.
Meanwhile, some patients say the research is saving their lives. Rudy Reyes is one of those patients. He was severely burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire.
“My house was now on fire so I couldn’t stay there so I came out and basically made the decision to run through the fire line. I covered my face with my hands and lost that finger and that ear because the flames were coming from that direction,” said Reyes.
After running through the flames, Reyes survived. The water combined with heat from the fire created steam so intense it peeled off 75 percent of his skin. His nerves were so badly damaged he says his sense of touch immediately turned cold. He was found disoriented and in shock along the road hours later. Doctors had to put him in an induced coma for 2 months and the next year of his life was spent in a hospital bed at UC San Diego Medical Center.
“During that time I was having complications with the medications and the fact that some of these medications being opiate based were overdosing me. I was slowly dying from having this in me so long,” Reyes said.
So, doctors decided to try medical cannabis. Reyes said as they slowly introduced it to his body, his blood pressure went down, his muscles relaxed and there was no need for morphine.
Dr. Mark Wallace with UC San Diego Medical Center has been studying cannabis and its use for chronic pain for nearly two decades. He said his studies reveal cannabis is a safer and more effective treatment for pain.
“It’s this inverted U with the THC and pain. As the THC levels go up in the blood, pain goes down to the point where it starts actually going in the wrong direction. As the blood levels go up, pain will actually start worsening. And so there is this therapeutic window,” Wallace said.
That therapeutic window is where just the right amount of cannabis treats pain and replaces opioids for about 70 percent of his patients.
“Bottom line is, I’d prefer to visit medical cannabis before we resort to an opioid. I think cannabis is much more conservative. I think it’s lower risk. There’s never been a reported death from medical cannabis or cannabis. Look at all the deaths annually from opioid use,” Wallace said.
Reyes said while he survived the fire, research like this is keeping him alive. Cannabis has made living with burns bearable.
“75 percent of my outside skin is now missing that nerve that tells me pain. So, in order to have any sensation, it’s always itching, it’s always crawling. I could itch to the point of bloody and it won’t make any difference. I smoke a little marijuana or ingest a little marijuana… and that goes away. Do you know how many pills it used to take to do that? A plethora of pills to do what one little plant can do,” Reyes said.
Wallace said more research is necessary to pinpoint dosing for medical cannabis, but said that research has been almost impossible since marijuana is still listed by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug. That list also includes heroin and LSD and describes these drugs as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse said 9 percent of people using marijuana become dependent and links its use to an increased risk for psychiatric disorders.
“Because it’s federally illegal, it makes it extremely difficult to do research, because since it’s Schedule I the only source of it is the government NIH, and that source of medical cannabis does not represent real world,” Wallace said.
So, the push continues from both patients and researchers to make cannabis more accessible, especially to those like Rudy Reyes, living with chronic pain and facing an opioid addiction.
“UCSD gave me an option out. Not everybody got that. Not everybody got that like I did. I was one of the blessed ones,” said Reyes.