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BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — At least one prominent West Virginia health official is touting the potential role medical marijuana can play in combating the state’s ongoing opioid crisis.

“It is in the discussion,” Dr. Robert Williams, Vice President of Behavior Health Services at United Hospital Center said Tuesday on “The Gary Bowden Show” on the AJR News Network. “It can be an alternative to opioid addiction. It can be an alternative to pain. A lot of other states, I think over half the states now, have medical marijuana as legal and are discovering the kind of results I’m discussing.”

Dr. Williams is also the Executive Director of United Summit Center in Bridgeport, a private non-profit comprehensive behavior health center that serves seven West Virginia counties. They specialize in outpatient services for crisis intervention, developmental disabilities, mental health, and addiction recovery.

“There was a lot of misinformation out there about opioids not being addictive,” he said. “The reality is they certainly are. A lot of individuals became addicted through that process where they had legitimate pain, and the quick answer was write a script for an opioid.”

A recent Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation revealed more than 780 million painkillers were shipped into West Virginia by wholesalers over a six-year period.

Dr. Williams said there is no conversation about opioids without discussing pain and pain management, and that marijuana needs to be part of the spectrum of options available for treating the pain that often lies at the heart of opioid addiction. In a number of states with looser laws governing marijuana, addiction overdose rates have seen a drop.

A silver bullet though? Not in this case.

“The bottom line is that individual is not going to recover, on the whole, until they get into the treatment continuum,” he said.

According to Williams, it’s a continuum that needs to include a number of different options for patients on a spectrum that can take years to complete. And, he said, it needs to include a support system that removes an addict in recovery from destabilizing environments and increases the level of support from family and friends.

“It’s a very difficult position [for family members],” he said. “My advice is, educate yourself. Find out all you can. Make the offers. But at the same time the decision to go [to treatment], unless it’s court-ordered, has to be the individuals.”

But without a support system in place that removes the stigma attached to addiction and drug or alcohol abuse, it’s much harder for an addict to succeed in recovery.

“It really is at the heart of the issue, in terms of as a clinician and as a treatment professional, some of the pain and suffering that goes along with the disease,” Dr. Williams said.

And if you want to be a positive part of that support system, Williams said you need to keep your mind open.

“I know it, but I really don’t deal with it,” he said. “There comes a point where you just can’t deny it. And, at the same time, you still love this individual. And you have a great deal of fear in terms of how their life is going to turn out.”

Another means of improving overall health outcomes for those struggling with addiction lies in harm reduction, an issue we’ll explore in much greater depth Wednesday on “The Gary Bowden Show.”

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