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From Pills to Pot: Patients Turn From Opioids to Medical Marijuana

Rosemary Maseri was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis years ago.

"With MS, you fall and trip a lot," she said. "I really did not have a life."

Maseri, 58, says she was prescribed opioids at age 36 after breaking a leg and getting a bone infection.

She says her treatment quickly turned into addiction.

"I was waiting for those six hours to go by like this so I could have another opioid," she said. "You start liking it and seven days later, you're addicted."

For the mother of two, there were some dark moments.

"I told my children that I didn't want to live," she said while fighting tears.

Maseri says her life changed after she got her medical marijuana ID card last year.

"It's one of the things I've told my children, I cannot wait for the day for me to wake up and not have pain and my dream has come true."

She inhales marijuana daily using a vaporizer that's filled with cannabis oil. It's one of the therapeutic methods approved by the Florida Department of Health.

Maseri said she still takes prescription pills for some treatment, but not opioids.

"The opioids are gone, gone, gone," she said.

Doctor Michelle Weiner, a pain management specialist, says people like Maseri are part of a bigger trend.

"I think it's (medical marijuana) a great alternative for a lot of people that are suffering with pain or have a lot of neurological degenerative diseases," she said. "It really improves quality of life."

In Florida, medical marijuana cannot be recommended for chronic pain alone.

"We have to justify to the Department of Health why this condition is similar to one of the ten qualifying conditions and then support our decision in the literature with research and evidence to show why patients have benefited from this condition."

Weiner says patients who used opioids are turning to medical marijuana because it can be a safer option.

"The patient isn't going to abuse it to the point that they're dying or they're going through life-threatening withdrawal," she said.

Dr. Weiner currently sees 800 patients on cannabis.

Some research shows that doctors are handing out fewer opioid prescriptions in states where medical marijuana is legal. In Florida, it's too soon to tell but it's something researchers are keeping a close eye on.

On July 1st, a new state law went into effect putting a three-day limit on most opioid prescriptions. It also requires doctors to record what they're prescribing in a statewide database and cross-check what other medications the patients are taking.

"A lot of physicians are concerned about prescribing opioids for a chronic condition," said Weiner.

She says her practice has gotten more patients since the law took effect but says some still have a difficult time getting access to treatment because medical marijuana is illegal under federal law. Therefore, cannabis is not covered by insurance.

"A lot of my patients say, you know what, my Percocet is covered by Medicare and that's fine for me," said Weiner.

For now, Maseri says she's willing to pay out of pocket.

"It's not fair," she said.

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