Publicity stunt promotes medical marijuana as alternative treatment for opioid addiction

The blue vending machine on display Tuesday, Oct 2, 2018 in Head House Square in Philadelphia. (Nine Feldman/WHYY)

The blue vending machine on display Tuesday, Oct 2, 2018 in Head House Square in Philadelphia. (Nine Feldman/WHYY)

People walking in Philadelphia’s Head House Square encountered an unusual interruption on Tuesday – a bright blue vending machine, which appeared to be selling drugs. The machine offered a choice between bottles labeled as medical marijuana, or prescription opioids.

But a closer look would reveal it to be more of an advertising ploy than a DIY pharmacy.

The machine offers a choice between bottles labelled prescription pain kilers and marijuana. Nina Feldman/WHYY)

The vending machine, which reads, “Got pain? Get relief”, is being taken on tour by Chicago-based Cresco Labs. The medical-marijuana company operates a growing center and a number dispensaries throughout Pennsylvania. The idea behind the vending machine is to lure people in with an interesting concept, then it explains that medical marijuana can be used as an alternative treatment to opioid-based painkillers.

Many people who are now addicted to heroin were first exposed to opioids through prescription painkillers. Now Cresco Labs and others want the medical community to prescribe marijuana instead of the highly-addictive pain medications.

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A number of studies show that states where medical marijuana is legal are seeing lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses. More recent research has shown that doctors prescribe fewer opioids when medical marijuana is an option.

But there is no research to show definitively that marijuana works to reduce pain, said Charlie Pollack, director of the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University.

According to Pollack, federal restrictions have limited the research, so it’s impossible to know for certain.

“The potential for cannabinoid therapy to help people with chronic pain is certainly there, I’m not discounting that in any way,” Pollack said. “I’m just saying that right now we have very little data to guide us on exactly how we might make that happen.”

In May, Pennsylvania became the first state to list opioid dependence as one of the conditions that would qualify patients for a medical marijuana prescription. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said that broadening the list of qualifying conditions, which is now up to 22, also expands the areas possible for research.

“Only approved conditions under the law can be studied through our research program,” said Levine in a statement.

Even with state support, research will be limited. Although the Pennsylvania medical marijuana program is unique in its pairing each growing facility with a research institution, Pollack cautions that this research cannot be done legally in the eyes of the federal government if the product is grown on site. Under federal law, the only research that can be done on medical marijuana has to be approved by the DEA, and the plant substance being studied has to come from the National Institute on Drug Abuse facility at the University of Mississippi.

“What that means is research that will be done with Pennsylvania grown cannabis will only be observational in nature,” explained Pollack. “You can’t randomize patients, you can’t control what they get, you can only observe and monitor and collect outcomes on their use of various substances.”

While the data and research may not be there to support marijuana as a viable alternative for pain management, anecdotally, there is a lot of support.

Ryan May was passing by on Lombard Street when the vending machine caught his eye.

May, 27, got hooked on prescription painkillers after he returned injured from the Air Force when he was 18. He said at times, marijuana helped relieve his emotional and physical pain. He couldn’t really use it casually, because he was already too deep into his addiction. That said, he supported it as an alternative for others.

“Especially if they’re given the marijuana prior to ever having the chance to become addicted to the opioids,” he said.

Chris Visco runs Tera Vida Holistic Centers, a network of dispensaries throughout the state, which sell Cresco’s products. She was also hanging out by the vending machine today, talking to people like May as they passed by. She said she sees people coming into her dispensaries who are trying to get off painkillers all the time. She recognizes marijuana is not always perfect.

“It’s not gonna work for everybody in terms of their pain,” said Visco. “But if they can go from six Percocets down to one and not be as dependent on it, to be able to supplement, that’s the goal.”

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