Cannabinoid Therapeutics and Opioid Addiction
Dispensary Manager Jenny O’Connor came to Southern Vermont Wellness with a passion for helping people. After becoming a certified Recovery Coach in the state of Vermont and dedicating many years of work in the addiction treatment field as a case manager, she’s developed a clear vision for assisting those who are transitioning off of s aided by the use of cannabinoid therapeutics. Jenny grew up in Hinsdale, NH, right across the river from Brattleboro, which she thought of as “the big city” when she was little. Supporting the community through her work, Jenny championed the first candlelight vigil for those lost to addiction, held at the Brattleboro Commons in May 2017. With a deep-seated commitment to helping others, she continues to advocate for change through her work at Southern Vermont Wellness. Our Community Educator, Ada Puches, sat down with Jenny to discuss her work.
ADA PUCHES: What surprised you the most when you started learning about medical cannabis?
JENNY O’CONNOR: I would have to say that what surprised me most were all of the different symptoms people would tell me cannabis helped them with. Before I came to work in the cannabis industry, I knew it helped people relax, but I was really surprised to learn that it helped people in so many different ways. I was pretty blown away. I devastatingly lost my brother to an opioid overdose and vowed to learn all I could about mental health and addiction. After his loss, I wanted to learn everything about opioid addiction. I studied Dr. Gabor Mate, and just needed to know, “what the heck is this all about? Why are people killing themselves?” Through intense self-learning and personal experience working one on one with hundreds of individuals, as well as numerous workshops and certified courses, I have learned a great deal about addiction and mental health, and how cannabis can help. The route of addiction is trauma. People have trauma and they are suffering, and are trying to get away from that trauma. Many people who are addicted to opioids have said to me that it’s “like a big, warm, hug that I never got from my mom.” I could never recommend cannabis to people professionally, even though I started seeing over and over that it was helping people refrain from using and helping them with their recovery. I would often see people get into trouble for using cannabis because they were on parole, or if you go to the Suboxone or Methadone clinic and are using cannabis, they would get kicked out of that program. I saw people’s tools being taken away from them, and that made me angry. I’d think to myself, “that’s not fair to them, you’re taking away a natural plant that they are using as a tool in their search for recovery.” After years of dealing with that, I made my way into this job. And every day, I know I can help people use the tools that I know are going to work. I’m not in a system that bangs their head up against a wall. I’m using something that actually works and I see the results every single day. I see it help people get off opioids, and help them maintain recovery. I see it even help them get rid of their anxiety or lessen their anxiety, and relieve their pain and help them to get better sleep.
AP: What do you want people who are struggling with either use or chronic pain medication use to know about medical cannabis?
JO: I think that the overall message I want people to know is that it’s been my experience personally, and from working in the dispensary, that there is a better way to treat your pain. That people have reported to me they can treat their pain longterm and with less of the side effects than they experience with taking opioids, as well as facilitate helping them to come off of the opioids in a way that isn’t as painful if they were to not use cannabis. It’s been my experience that people who come into the dispensary that are on opioids and have chronic pain are often times miserable. They’re in lots of pain, and are leery of what they’re doing, they’ll say things like, “I don’t know if this is going to work, my doctor has taken away my pain meds,” so they’re often grouchy, too. There is a lot to it. We meet with these people and guide them through the process, and we can slowly see the light come back. We slowly see them start to titrate off their opioids. Not only their opioids, but even sometimes their blood pressure medications, their benzodiazepines, their medications that are taking away from their lives. Many people who come to us will say, “oh my Gosh, I’m no longer just sitting on my couch drooling, spacing out and watching TV. I’m getting outside. I’m walking. I’m doing stuff with my family.” That is huge. I want people to know that there is a better way. That there is a much better way.
AP: What do you think the general public needs to know about the use of medical cannabis?
JO: I would say that maybe people need to do more research into cannabis, and listen to patients who are currently using it to see how they are using it and how it is benefiting their lives. We help a lot of people on a daily basis. We have elderly people come in that have been in pain for numerous years – that have not had any sleep, or just feel very out of control of their lives because they’ve been dealing with a chronic illness for many years…they’ve been on opioids and are just not living their best life, and so they come in to us and they’re ready to do something different. We teach them to use cannabis in a way that is therapeutic, and give them a way for them to get off of opioids. I’ve seen people come in whispering about cannabis who are leery of it, and then they sit down with one of the servers and at the end of their visit, they just feel so happy to have met with us and to have learned about cannabis. And then when they come back, we often hear things like, “oh my Gosh, I’ve had the best night of sleep I’ve had in years!” And that right there is so great, because if they’re not sleeping, they’re not healing. Every day, these are the kind of stories we hear. I think to have the general public know that it does help people medicinally is key.
AP: What do you think health care professionals need to know about the benefits of medical cannabis?
JO: I would think that doctors should know they have lots of research available for them. We have people who work with our company that can go out and educate them about cannabis, so that doctors can feel comfortable about using it as an alternative medicine. If patients come into them and say, “hey, this is something that I would like to explore,” with education, doctors would not be so worried about questions like that. I think it would be great if we’re all on the same page. Now, we have plenty of training in the community for health care providers. We used to not have very much, but now UVM has a course, and there are actually free modules on their website. Like I said, we go out and do training, other organizations go out and do training…so it’s not as hard as it used to be for them to get educated. There are even MD’s out there like Dr. Dustin Sulak that have specific training on using cannabis to combat opioid use and have research available on their websites.
AP: Jenny, as you know, several states have added opioid use to their Qualifying Conditions for their medical programs. Why do you think that’s a good idea?
JO: From what I see in the dispensary every day – I see people coming in who are prescribed opioids, or have an addiction to opioids, and when then they come into the dispensary we work with them to help get off of opioids. I used to work in the addiction field, and I worked in that field for a very long time. In the two years that I have worked for this company, I’ve seen more people come off of opioids and maintain that recovery for longer than I ever did in the addiction treatment field. That speaks volumes to me – that cannabis does truly help. If we have a field that is designed to help people in addiction treatment and it’s not working as well as what I see in the dispensary, I think that is a very big deal. For years, I struggled to work within the mental health and addiction system of treatment. It is my opinion that our system needs drastic change. Throughout my time working in the mental health and addiction field, I continued to see how helpful of a tool cannabis was to relieve some of the suffering. Using cannabis as a therapy is about harm reduction. You cannot overdose on cannabis. It has been my experience that cannabis helps you heal from emotional pain, as well as physical. In my experience, since entering into the medical cannabis industry, using cannabis as a means to come off opioids, whether prescribed or not, has been more effective than other means of treatment. I see people’s lives change for the better every day, and I’m thankful that I am able to be part of something I truly believe will help our communities to heal.
AP: You obviously know a great deal about medical cannabis and you feel passionately about its benefits. In closing, would you like to share anything with us today that has been particularly impactful in this journey for you?
JO: This work is so important to me because loved ones and people in my community are suffering and dying from opioid addiction. Personal experience with loved ones, as well as working hand in hand with those struggling with opioid addiction has led me here. I can say the most impactful story for me is my own story. Years ago, I was diagnosed with PTSD and my doctor had given me lots of medications which helped, a little bit, but – I also gained fifty pounds and I wasn’t very happy. Finally, I was turned onto cannabis. As a teenager I was in the D.A.R.E. program and so I was like, “Oh my Gosh, what the heck are you talking about?” But I decided to try it for myself, and sure enough, by integrating it into my daily routine, slowly, I was able to get off all of those medications. I lost fifty pounds, and my quality of life has been just so much better since then. I sincerely owe all of it to cannabis. I knew that I needed to get involved and help other people to realize that same thing.