Controversial question: Is pot part of the answer to the heroin epidemic?

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CLEVELAND - One week after seven additional states legalized some form of marijuana use, a controversial question is now getting more serious attention.

And that is: with so many people now dying from addictions to opiate painkillers (about 47,000 nationwide this year alone, and close to 700 just in Cuyahoga County), should we be looking more closely at marijuana as a possible alternative for treating pain?

"This isn't some stoner stereotype about 'getting high man'", says 38 year-old Bob Ellison, "this saved my life."

Ellison has bone-on-bone arthritis in his right knee. He says his doctor put him on opiates for the pain, but soon, he felt the need to take more and more to try and control the pain.

"I was taking twelve, fourteen, sixteen pills a day," he says, "I was suppose to be taking three."
Worried that he was soon going to overdose in his sleep, Ellison made a radical decision: to switch from taking opiates to using marijuana to help control his pain.

"I want to take medical marijuana for pain because I don't want to be an opiate drug addict," he says.

While states have been legalizing medical marijuana at a rapid rate recently (Ohio did so in September), the federal government still classifies marijuana use as illegal.

And many experts in medicine and law enforcement regard marijuana as a so-called "gateway drug" that leads users to to other, harder drugs.

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies many opiates as "Schedule 2" drugs - meaning they can be abused, but have medical value.

But the DEA classifies marijuana on "Schedule 1" - meaning it can be abused, and has no medical value.

"We have to end the DEA's monopoly on medical marijuana research," says Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Sen. Booker and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York testified at a hearing this year on Capitol Hill that more research needs to be done into marijuana, but that its Schedule 1 classification prevents a lot of work from being done.

"The problem," Sen. Gillibrand testified, "is the law."

"(Marijuana) is harder to study because there are more restrictions on it," says DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, "but the restrictions are there for a reason. But the most important thing - it's not impossible."

The DEA bases its decision of how to schedule drugs on scientific studies reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration.

But, in its most recent review, the FDA found only eleven studies that met its criteria, and said that sample size was too small to draw any conclusions.

Still, the FDA wrote that "the studies reviewed produced positive results, suggesting marijuana should be further evaluated as an adjunct treatment for neuropathic pain...."

"A lot of studies have not been done simply because of the classification that the drug currently has," says Jim Besier, PhD., the Director of Pharmacy at University Hospitals' Rainbow Babies and Children's' Hospital.

"I believe," he adds, "additional research would certainly be helpful."

Sen. Booker says the experience of many Americans shows that marijuana deserves more study.

And, speaking just about his own life, Bob Eillison couldn't agree more.

"I don't think I'd still be alive today if I were still on opiates and not marijuana," he says, "it saved my life."

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