Maryland’s leadership in fighting the opioid epidemic

The U.S. is facing an opioid epidemic. We have seen a 200 percent increase in overdose deaths involving opioids since 2000. In 2012, there were 259 million prescriptions written for painkillers – enough for to give each American adult a bottle of pills. The South has been particularly impacted, with ten of the highest prescribing states for painkillers.

Maryland is one such state facing a serious opioid epidemic. In some regions of the state, an estimated one in ten citizens is addicted to heroin. This is why, as a drug rehabilitation professional, I commend Maryland’s leadership as the first state below the Mason-Dixon Line to legalize medical cannabis, because it has significant, untapped potential to curb our state’s and our country’s addiction to opioids.

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I have spent years working with addiction treatment providers in Maryland, five of those as the Director of Serenity Acres, a drug rehabilitation center in Crownsville. I have seen the heroin epidemic in Maryland with my own eyes, and I feel strongly that prescription opioids are at the heart of it.

Our patients with opioid addictions often had dealt with chronic pain or serious surgery, for which they were prescribed painkillers – medications we are familiar with and don’t think to put in the same category as heroin. However, for both prescription and illicit opioids, the longer they are taken, the higher the dose needed to have the same effect. Physical dependence soon sets in. Opioid withdrawal is an excruciating process, so when the doctor stops prescribing, going cold turkey doesn’t seem like an option. Buying or stealing pills is often the next step. Heroin use becomes the ultimate reality for many.

I have seen the devastating consequences of this pattern too many times in my career. This led me to work closely with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, physicians, nurses, and pharmacists to provide rehabilitation to patients that was nothing short of miraculous. I was thrilled to see $94 million in federal funding this year put toward supporting clinics treating heroin and opioid addiction, $1.8 million of which went to Maryland clinics. But there is an even more powerful ally in the fight against the opioid epidemic that we haven’t yet put to use in Maryland or the South: cannabis.

A study released this month by University of Georgia researchers found that painkiller abuse and overdose are lower in states with medical cannabis laws. To get specific: in the 17 states with a medical-cannabis law in place by 2013, the typical physician prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year. This study, among many others, demonstrates the untapped value of medical cannabis in treating pain in patients, in place of dangerously addictive opioids. 

There is good news on the horizon for Maryland patients. State officials expect to award the first licenses for Maryland’s medical cannabis program as early as Aug. 5. As someone who has dedicated their life to rehabilitation, I am excited about what this means for Maryland patients as a game-changer for the devastating opioid epidemic. My professional and personal belief in medical cannabis as a revolution in patient care, particularly for pain and other difficult to treat conditions, drove me to become involved with Evolution Wellness, one of the companies that has applied for a medical cannabis license in Maryland.

The heroin and opioid addiction ravaging our nation is nothing short of tragic – and our patients deserve better. As the first state in the Southeast to legalize medical cannabis, I applaud Maryland’s leadership in providing our patients with a non-narcotic option for the pain relief they need. Through thoughtful and compassionate care, medical cannabis can end our country’s addiction to opioids. I look forward to being on the frontline of the fight.

Melanie Galloway is the Chief Operating Officer of Evolution Wellness, LLC. Melanie also co-founded Serenity Acres, a rehabilitation center in Crownsville, Md., which she grew from initial concept to a 40-bed facility over five years. She is a veteran of the rehabilitation and wellness industry with extensive experience working with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to ensure the highest standard of patient care.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.