Using Cannabis Helped Me Stay off Opioids after Major Hip Surgery

Matthew Koehler

A 90 day supply of opioids after hip surgery had me hooked — cannabis helped me kick the pills and manage pain.

Chronic pain has been a constant companion since I was 17, when I broke my hip and had to have arthroscopic surgery. The doctor, who worked on professional athletes, said he'd only seen such injuries in football players, and said I would have to live with reduced function for the rest of my life. I would probably need an early hip replacement, too.

A few years ago, I had a second hip surgery. As a much older man, my second recovery was longer and more painful. The extent to which I would recover, uncertain. The doctor warned me that I wasn't yet a good candidate for hip replacement, but the time for it was rapidly approaching. He gave me to my early to mid 40s, and here I was at 35 with the hip of someone in their 60s.

This is significant because, not only am I a father, I'm was, at the time, a stay-at-home parent. Mobility was part of my profession.

You heard that correctly. I am a parent and as you've no doubt implied by the the title, I've used cannabis as pain management. Contrary to the opinion of an infamous former Attorney General and countless others – even now in 2021, I am not a bad person.

Neither are you.

A path to pain management, a doorway to addiction

For the long and uncomfortable recovery, my doctor prescribed a healthy amount of painkillers. Specifically, a three month’s supply of 5m oxycodone and a lesser supply of 10m oxycontin, with at least one refill when I was done.

Given that my second surgery took place while the opioid epidemic was in full-swing, I was well-versed in the dangers. I had no intention of becoming a statistic but wasn't going to say no to them either.

I took the opioids for months to quell the grinding pain in my hip. After nearly three months of using them, I’d predictably become chemically dependent on them. My "addiction story," though, ends with only several days of heightened anxiety and moderate discomfort.

After that, I never looked back.

Not long after I finally ran out, I was back at my doctor for a checkup and he asked me if I needed another refill. I did but considering how much I’d come to rely on them for pain management, I passed. I told him no refills were necessary.

I currently reside in D.C. where recreational cannabis is legal (not for sale without a medical card thanks to Congress) . I told my doctor that  there was a safer, greener alternative. He smiled and simply said, “Okay.”

The cynical part of my brain thought my doctor was testing me. Surely getting a refill on opiates, during a raging epidemic opioid abuse, wouldn’t be as easy as saying, “Yes, I need another refill.” His question, though, was earnest and without subtext. He simply wanted to manage my pain.

I should point out that this wasn’t a pill mill. My doctor wouldn’t have blindly filled another script without a lengthy discussion on whether or not I actually needed them. Also, I wasn't there for a sprained ankle. Hip surgery is major surgery.

But, here’s my confession: I liked having opiates. They noticeably dulled the pain and made me feel great –
positive even, and mentally charged. There are plenty of anecdotal accounts confirming that this is a common response to the chemical.

At the doctor's office, I had to remind myself of my commitment to not refilling my prescription – no matter what. My relationship with opiates was to be terminal, even though I had a valid reason to use them. There was a moment, though, when asked about refilling my script, my mind screamed at me, begging for me to say yes. I nearly had a panic attack in the brief moment before I said no and every second before walking out of the check up, I came up with excuses to backtrack to a "yes."

I felt a significant physical pain in my chest until I was downstairs and on the street where turning back was no longer an option.

Here, I count myself one of the lucky ones. My default setting on opiates was backed by a strong support network. I was in reasonably good health, had work to do and a child to take care of, and a mother who was a nurse (she reminded me almost daily of the dangers of opioids). Unfortunately, many addicts across the country don’t have the same support network and become addicted opioids or harder, more accessible drugs that are also conveniently cheaper. Street heroin, for example, has made a huge comeback in upper middle class (white) neighborhoods because it's easier to obtain and cheaper than oxy.

The ubiquity and access to fentanyl, a far more potent and dangerous drug, further exacerbates this problem.

However, for me and many others in the country where cannabis is legal, we've found a more viable solution to pain management.

Legalized cannabis is a path out of drug abuse but it's not a cure-all

There are two reasons for all the context:

1. It’s always necessary to establish the argument for pain management because a lot of people, especially old school drug warriors, simply don’t believe there’s any value in cannabis
2. Please refer back to the first point

My quality of life was skipping down a hill long before I went in for surgery, and by the time I walked into the operating room, my resolve had withered. Just walking a few blocks caused immense physical discomfort.

Chronic pain had exacerbated other problems, too, namely depression and heavier drinking.

Yet, being able to schedule an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon and start a regimen of physical therapy made things more hopeful. Many who suffer chronic pain don’t have the resources to seek out treatment, and I count myself lucky for the socioeconomic status I was born into.

When the physical therapy and cortisone shots no longer worked, I eventually heeded the advice of cannabis-using friends and tried that. It didn't fix my chronic hip pain but it made it less constant and, for periods of time, the grinding pain became mere background noise. It allowed me to enjoy life and focus on running around and playing with my daughter.

This is not to say that cannabis is a magic bullet that should be used without personal restraint. Nor is it for everyone.

There’s still a lot of misinformation about both its drawbacks and its efficacy as a medicine.

To advocates, it’s properties are applications are infinite and the zeitgeist is almost mythical, but legitimate research is just catching up to decades of propaganda. Conversely, old myths are still touted by anti-legalization advocates today: That it’s a gateway drug, extremely dangerous, useless as medicine, and only bad people use it.

Yet, unlike other controlled substances we use recreationally, alcohol for example, cannabis seems to have far more value than just social lubrication and altered states of consciousness. It's also far less dangerous than alcohol and other Schedule 1 and 2 substances, and non lethal. There’s a growing body of evidence that it's highly beneficial. CBD, the non psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, is being recognized for a range of positive side side effects from treating anxiety to chronic pain to mitigating seizures. And, cannabis legalization also correlates highly with reduced opioid addiction.

Still, I won’t sit here and tell you cannabis is panacea. No such substance exists, whether natural, manmade, or engineered by the gods. Not yet anyway. I also won't be the first to point out that it can be abused. Anything out of moderation can be abused to a body’s physical and mental detriment, and the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC, has been linked to psychotic breaks in people prone to them. Contingent on that last point, the weed we use today is far more potent than the weed our parents and grandparents smoked. The effects of THC on the brain aren't yet totally understood.

And, I'll be the first to tell you that you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery or perform difficult tasks under the influence of Cannabis. We all laugh about "high driving" how it makes you more careful but that's a myth. If you show up to a job where people's lives are on the line, and your are high, the consequences should be swift and severe.

Neither can you produce a coherent, well-edited essay when stoned – even if anecdotally it’s great to get the ideas flowing.This essay, for example, was written and edited while one hundred percent sober, but it started out as a stray thought conjured out of a cannabis cloud.

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