Ohio has one of the nation's highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths. Some experts hope medical marijuana may allay the opioid crisis, but others are not optimistic.
Leaning on her cane, Joan Caleodis stepped gingerly into history on Wednesday as one of the first people to legally purchase medical marijuana in the state of Ohio.
Caleodis, who is 55 and suffers from multiple sclerosis, paid $150 for three containers, each holding 2.83 grams of dried cannabis flowers, at the CY Dispensary in the town of Wintersville.
"I'm feeling ecstatic," Caleodis told reporters as other pain sufferers waiting in line applauded. "The patients no longer have to wait for relief. We can get rid of this opioid issue we have in this country."
Caleodis said she felt even better when she got home and tried out her purchase.
"I was curious and I am very happy with the quality," she told NBC News. "Some days are worse than others, but I am pretty much in constant pain and right now I am not."
A former state worker who went on disability after 27 years on the job, Caleodis said she was prescribed opioids for pain after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than eight years ago.
"I found myself taking double the amount prescribed and told myself, 'I'm not going that route'," she said. "This is definitely better."
While medical marijuana is now available in the Buckeye State, it is unclear if the change will put a dent into the state's opioid epidemic. Ohio is one of "the top five states with the highest rates for opioid-related overdose deaths," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Medical marijuana dispensaries are regulated in Ohio by the state Board of Pharmacy. When asked if the state views legal pot as a potential weapon in the battle against the deadly opioid epidemic, a Board spokesman replied, "The state has no official policy on this."
The same question was posed to newly-installed Gov. Mike DeWine, who as attorney general sued the pharmaceutical companies for flooding his state with prescription painkillers. His team referred a reporter to the state Board of Pharmacy.
Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and creator of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog, said, "The simple answer is yes, I think it will help."
But, Berman said, while the epidemic was sparked by people abusing opioids prescribed by doctors, the most recent death data suggests that is fast becoming less of a problem.
"Overdose deaths of recent vintage are due to cocaine and meth mixed with fentanyl," he said, referring to methamphetamines.
Berman is far from being the only expert waiting to see whether medical marijuana will have any effect on the opioid crisis. Consider the following responses that appeared last summer on anonline forum sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"There's some suggestive evidence that marijuana may help to reduce opioid use," Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-founder of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectivenesss at the Bloomberg School posted. "There's also some evidence to the contrary."
Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation said in the same forum that she was in favor of expanding medical marijuana programs, but added, "I do not believe that doing so will substantially impact the opioid epidemic. "
"Most people substituting cannabis for opioids are not using either drug medicinally," she wrote. "Moreover, research does not suggest that cannabis is a substitute for heroin or fentanyl, the major drivers of the epidemic today."
Mark Parrino of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence said, "It is counterintuitive to advocate for the legalization of marijuana while our nation is struggling with an opioid use disorder epidemic."
"While medical use of marijuana may be beneficial in some cases, I do not think that it is reasonable to promote marijuana as a positive medical treatment," he wrote.
Caleodis said anyone who thinks marijuana doesn't help should take a walk in her shoes. She said she has used other "black market" cannabis products to easy her anguish over the years.
"My symptoms are always there, I feel a burning in my feet just about all the time," she said. "And at night it is way worse. Sometimes I just can't sleep. But tonight I think I will."
Ohio's medical marijuana law passed in 2016 and was signed into law by then Gov. John Kasich, a Republican. It authorizes the use of cannabis for patients with any of 21 specific conditions. And it requires all potential medical marijuana patients to register with the state Board of Pharmacy.
In addition, patients have to get a "recommendation" from a physician.
Doctors can't prescribe marijuana because the federal government continues to classify it as a Schedule 1 drug.
There are currently just four dispensaries in Ohio where people can purchase marijuana, two in Wintersville and the other two in Canton and Sandusky. Officials said the lines were long at them all on Wednesday.
Under state regulations, the marijuana is sold dried and in 2.93 gram packages for $50 apiece that the growers have nicknamed an "Ohio tenth," Cincinnati.com reported.