When Tom Quigley had surgery on his pancreas in 2012, his doctors told him opioids would be best for the pain.

A years-long dependence on the potent painkillers – which Quigley finally managed to conquer in 2010 – told him that simply wasn’t an option.

“There’s no doubt about it: pain pills work, and they work very well... but your quality of life is seriously diminished,” said the Tampa resident, who describes the three-year period when he was addicted to opioids as an overall “numbness” punctuated by side effects like constipation and internal bleeding.  

“Not only did I not feel the pain I was going through, but the opioids numbed my other senses, turned me into a kind of zombie. [Not to mention that] if I woke up in the morning and didn’t take my medication, I was basically unable to function.”

It all started in 2006, when a car accident wrecked Quigley’s neck and back and he was prescribed a regimen of Percocet and Vicodin for the pain. One year later, his neck collapsed, crushing his spinal cord in the process. Following an emergency spinal fusion, doctors upped his medication – adding the opioid Dilaudid to the mix. As his dosages continued to escalate, so did his tolerance.

By 2010, Quigley was “highly addicted” to pain medication. One night in December, suffering from pains in his side, he admitted himself to the hospital. He was informed that – thanks to a combination of the opioids and the acetaminophen they were cut with – he had developed liver disease. The doctors told him that if he didn’t make some serious lifestyle changes, he would need a liver transplant within a handful of years.

This turned out to be the wake-up call Quigley needed. Choosing to go cold turkey, he spent three days detoxing from the painkillers on his living room couch, an experience he calls “very painful.”

Fast forward to 2012, when Quigley developed a mass on his pancreas and was told he had to undergo a surgery known as a Whipple procedure. Doctors recommended Quigley go back on pain pills for his recovery.

“I had an extreme aversion to pain medication at that time,” said Quigley, whose past addiction made him “fearful to even taken an Aspirin.”

“I decided to seek out alternative-type treatments, to figure out how I could treat myself without going back on the medication that almost killed me.”

That’s how Quigley discovered cannabis. Driven by his desire for a “future without pain medication”, Quigley set out to learn everything he could about how medical marijuana was being used to treat “not only pain, but other ailments I experienced myself, like anxiety.”

He learned that medical marijuana’s potential as a safer alternative to powerful painkillers – and, consequently, as a tool to fight America’s opioid epidemic – was well documented.   

Of course, as a resident of Florida – which has some of the country’s most restrictive medical marijuana laws as well as an opioid crisis so severe that it was recently declared a public health emergency – Quigley had to go elsewhere for his new medication.

‘Elsewhere’ turned out to be California, where Quigley secured a medical marijuana card. By the time he had to have his hip replaced – Quigley also suffers from degenerative bone disease and rheumatoid arthritis – he’d figured out a regimen of cannabis products that worked for him in ways the opioids never did.

“I’d use cannabis, whether it was an oil or an edible, and I’d be relieved and able to function. At the same time, I wasn’t impaired or [suffering from] any of those harmful side effects that came with the opioids,” said Quigley.

But the main difference between opioids and cannabis, said Quigley, is the plant’s ability to let the body recover from trauma at a natural pace.

“The fact that the pain pills were just so easy to take and dull the pain actually prevented me from recovering as quickly as possible because there were certain things I didn’t feel that I needed to feel in order to recover safely,” he said.

“After my spinal fusion, for example, I tried to go right back to the gym because I felt okay, and that’s when I lifted up a couple 45-pound dumbbells and my back went... whereas when I had my hip replacement, I was able to feel the different parts of my body that may not have been ready to be used at that capacity.”

Today, Quigley said he no longer lives in fear. He still uses cannabis, largely to help him sleep, and he believes more education is needed to make people aware that “they have options.”

“Physicians have been so pre-programmed to just give out pills and say ‘take this until you feel better’... there are so many people that are suffering and dying because of addiction and because of the ability to acquire something that’s killing them through a pharmacy,” said Quigley.

“We need to help change the perspective that choosing cannabis as a treatment doesn’t make you a bad person. That’s why I’m sharing my story, because I know there are people out there right now that are using prescriptions because their doctor told them to and they don’t really know what it’s doing to their bodies... They don’t know there’s another option.”

Read more in our 'Life After Opioids' series: