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Overdose Awareness Day: Our Communities Deserve Better Options

Just weeks before Overdose Awareness Day, recognized every year on Aug. 31, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that in 2020, more than 92,000 people had died from a drug overdose – a 29% increase from a record high in 2019.

COVID-19-related lockdowns and financial challenges contributed to setting two sobering records: the highest number of deaths in one year, and the largest increase in deaths in one year.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are mourning a family member, friend or loved one who died from a drug overdose last year alone.

But grief has no expiration date, and these hundreds of thousands of loved ones are hardly the only ones mourning someone who died from an overdose. In the past 21 years, more than 933,000 people have died from a drug overdose, according to the CDC. That means millions of people are mourning a family member, friend, neighbor or coworker who died due to an overdose.

At Vireo Health, we send our heartfelt condolences to all who are affected by drug overdoses, and to all who are struggling with addiction.

Addiction is an epidemic in our society, as well as in our veteran community. Veterans are often prescribed opioids after suffering injuries in combat and are often prescribed benzodiazepines or other psychiatric medications for anxiety and PTSD resulting from direct combat. Some veterans turn to alcohol or other substances in an attempt to cope or self-medicate after witnessing and experiencing traumas.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, military deployment unfairly impacts our veterans with associated health burdens, such as smoking initiation, unhealthy drinking, drug use and risky behaviors. A 2015 report found that one in three service members met the report’s stated criteria for binge drinking, with more than one in three service personnel meeting criteria for hazardous drinking or possible alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse added that among veterans presenting for first-time care within the Veterans Health Administration system, close to 11% meet criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis, and that veterans with substance use disorders commonly meet the criteria for co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.

In 2013, a report from the VA showed that a staggering 22 veterans die by suicide each day – or one veteran every 65 minutes. Just one is far too many. These veterans can’t access cannabis under the VA’s medical care system, but they can be – and often are – prescribed multiple pharmaceuticals, a situation called polypharmacy. The potential for side effects is greater in polypharmacy, not just because the number of pharmaceutical prescriptions is increased, but because of the potential for medications to interact with each other as well.

Prior to starting Vireo Health, company founder and CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley worked with several veterans who had been prescribed medications to help with chronic pain and PTSD. One veteran, who had suffered a gunshot wound that resulted in a spinal cord injury, was prescribed opioids to help with his debilitating pain, but found that the opioids came with their own side effects. His story is one of many.

The social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated feelings of loneliness and depression for many. With restrictions on in-person gatherings, many lifelines for those struggling with addiction – including 12-step programs, support groups and therapy sessions – have been cancelled or impacted. Others have moved online, presenting barriers to access for those without home internet service and a device that can access the internet.

We believe that our veterans – and our community at large – deserve better.

For many, cannabis may help ease symptoms of pain, anxiety, PTSD and other conditions, reducing the need for opioids or addictive prescriptions. Many of our patients have decreased the level of opioids or psychiatric prescriptions needed to relieve symptoms – while also potentially reducing the risk of addiction to those prescriptions and reducing the likelihood of side effects like sedation, dizziness, nausea or other GI upset. One of many important arguments for medical cannabis is that, unlike opioids or benzodiazepines, it is not possible to suffer a deadly overdose from cannabis.

The veteran with the spinal cord injury treated by Dr. Kingsley turned to cannabis and found that it helped alleviate his pain with far fewer side effects, and greater quality of life, than the opioids he had been prescribed. His experience was one of many similar experiences that inspired Dr. Kingsley to start Vireo Health and is one example of what we believe is possible for many more patients.

Several high-quality clinical trials are currently underway to further expand scientific knowledge about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating symptoms of pain, anxiety, PTSD and more. In New York, the Medical Marijuana and Opioids (MEMO) Study, examining how medical cannabis use affects opioid use, and the Re-Leaf-V study, examining how discounted vouchers for medical cannabis affect opioid use in adults with chronic pain, are both actively recruiting participants. In Michigan, the 2021 Veteran Marijuana Research Grant Program awarded a $12.9 million grant to Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to expand research into the effectiveness of cannabis in treating PTSD among veterans.

We believe cannabis should be legally accessible to all adults, but especially those who are suffering from pain, anxiety and similar conditions. We also believe medical providers should be able to legally recommend cannabis to patients in their efforts to alleviate symptoms with fewer side effects and no risk of death from overdose.

Finally, we believe that those who are recommended medical cannabis by their providers should have this important medication covered by their health insurance, just as the potentially far more harmful pharmaceuticals are covered for these same patients.

The U.S. has come a long way on cannabis policy in the past few years, but we have much further yet to go. One of the first priorities should be getting veterans, and all those who suffer from chronic pain, PTSD, anxiety, and other serious medical conditions, better tools and solutions to these complex challenges. We truly believe this includes access to medical cannabis in a better, more affordable manner, and won’t rest until we help to prove it.

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