SOUTHERN COLORADO — Some say the reason they moved to Colorado was to gain access to cannabis, in hopes of moving past an opioid addiction. But a local pain medicine physician believes the legalization of marijuana has actually worsened the opioid epidemic.
Matthew Kahl is a veteran who lives in Divide. He served in the army infantry starting in 2007. In 2010, he was ejected from a turret during a combat operation in Afghanistan, and shattered his face as it happened. "I also have cervical, thoracic, and lumbosacral spine injuries, and a traumatic brain injury," said Kahl.
Kahl said his recovery process took around five years, but he still has lingering side effects of the injuries. Right after he was injured, he could not read for a short period of time and had a hard time understanding speech. His memory also struggled with associating a face to a name. "I was on some of the most potent opioids known to man. Dilaudid, fentanyl, you name it. I took all of those things during the medevac process. Eventually, they weaned me off to oxycontin, which is not exactly something to be weaned off onto," said Kahl.
In 2013, Kahl moved from North Carolina to Colorado to seek out medical marijuana. He says within a few months of moving to the Centennial State, he was off of all opioids. The only thing that truly helped manage his pain and PTSD was the cannabis. "Cannabis was literally the thing that got me off the opioids... My family has a father and a husband back. I am no longer falling asleep in the middle of my sentences and drifting off in the middle of any activity," said Kahl.
The El Paso County Coroner said opioid related deaths have been trending downward consistently over years prior to 2017. Here is a look at the total number of opioid related deaths from 2017-2020:
The coroner went on to say that THC use, despite legalization, has not increased in those who pass through the coroner's office. The biggest driver behind the 2020 increase is a sharp spike in fentanyl in our community, which accounts for almost half of the opioid related deaths. The coroner also said the pandemic could have played a role in the numbers. These are only the preliminary figures for 2020 from his office.
Dr. Ken Finn is a pain medicine physician who has been practicing in Colorado Springs for almost 30 years. He's not a nihilist when it comes to medical cannabis, and has made recommendations in the past for patients who are terminally ill or dying. "But it's interesting that marijuana was considered an essential business in 2020 by our governor, yet all the other things that help people with addiction like drug courts, recovery programs, they had to shut down," said Dr. Finn.
Dr. Finn pointed to the above graphic from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which shows the fluctuation of drug related deaths throughout the state from 2000-2020. They are broken up by the category of drug, and the gray line represents any opioid analgesic. The blue line represents fentanyl.
Dr. Finn believes the data shows a correlation between the legalization of marijuana, and opioid use. "Since we legalized recreational use in 2014, prescription opioid deaths have gone up by 90%... The expansion of marijuana programs has fueled our opioid epidemic," said Dr. Finn.
Dr. Finn said from a scientific perspective, the way cannabinoids and opioids work are similar, but does not believe the products purchased from dispensaries have been proven to be an effective pain reliever. "The number of deaths continue to rise, despite most of the medical marijuana cards being recommended for pain... The link between cannabinoids and opioids is there, but I think we really need to put the cart back behind the horse," said Dr. Finn.
When asked about Kahl's account of how cannabis saved him from opioids, Dr. Finn said "I'm happy for him, that he's off his opioids. But that's an anecdote, it's a story. And I have a lot of stories of patients that it doesn't help their pain."
Kahl said he's not alone, and knows many other veterans who also turned to cannabis for similar reasons. "Since coming here, I've met hundreds, if not thousands, of other veterans who have come here specifically to use cannabis to get off of opioids. So, at least in our cases, that's absolutely untrue," said Kahl.
A representative from the Canna-Patient Resource Connection said the rise in opioid related deaths in Colorado does not correspond to the legalization of marijuana, and believes it is more closely related to population growth and social conditions.
We also reached out to the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, to see if they have noted any trends related to opioid use in Colorado since the legalization of cannabis. They provided us with this statement:
Within our case database, we do not have a search to where we can break it down to just one particular drug, as an example from 03-2020 through 03-2021, the EPSO has taken over 100 Narcotics related cases.
Unfortunately, as far as seeing trends, we only provide information objectively which is based on facts found in cases. Trend statistics require an extensive amount of research within reports to determine accurate information. At this time we do not have trend data available on this topic.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, don't wait to get help. There are many resources locally, like AspenRidge Recovery, Springs Recovery Connection, Sandstone Care, and AspenPointe that are waiting to help.
If you need help now, you can also call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255.