As policymakers continue to grapple with the opioid crisis, some are setting their sights on state medical marijuana programs as a potential option for reducing opioid consumption. Measures to expand medical marijuana access for current opioid users are now taking shape in multiple states, signaling an evolving role for medical marijuana in the effort to address opioid abuse.
In Pennsylvania, opioid use disorder has recently been added as a qualifying condition for the medical marijuana program:
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said this form of treatment won’t be the first and only option for people in recovery, but it could be an option for some.
“By adding opioid-use disorder as an approved medical condition under the program, we not only give physicians another tool for treatment of this devastating disease, but we allow for research to be conducted on medical marijuana’s effectiveness in treatment,” Dr. Levine said. “Only approved conditions under the law can be studied through our research program.” [Philly Voice]
Pennsylvania is indeed well positioned to produce important data due to the medical marijuana program’s research partnerships with academic institutions. This represents a unique opportunity to expand clinical knowledge of how cannabis treatment can impact opioid use disorder and the Pennsylvania Department of Health deserves credit for its leadership on this issue.
Health officials in New York State are also taking action, announcing this week that patients with a prescription for opioids will soon be eligible to participate in the medical marijuana program.
ALBANY, N.Y. (June 18, 2018) – The New York State Department of Health today announced it will develop a regulatory amendment to add opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.
“The opioid epidemic in New York State is an unprecedented crisis, and it is critical to ensure that providers have as many options as possible to treat patients in the most effective way,” said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. “As research indicates that marijuana can reduce the use of opioids, adding opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana has the potential to help save countless lives across the state.” [NY.Gov]
This approach seeks to establish medical marijuana access for any patient who might otherwise rely primarily on opioid prescriptions for pain relief. It’s a forward-thinking measure that recognizes emerging evidence of marijuana’s potential to reduce opioid-related health risks:
Marijuana can be an effective treatment for pain, greatly reduces the chances of dependence and eliminates the risk of fatal overdose compared to opioid-based medications. Studies of some states with medical marijuana programs have found notable associations of reductions in opioid deaths and opioid prescribing with the availability of cannabis products. States with medical cannabis programs have been found to have lower rates of opioid overdose deaths than other states, perhaps by as much as 25 percent. Studies on opioid prescribing in some states with medical marijuana laws have noted a 5.88 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing. Adding prescribed opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana will allow individuals who use opioids to instead use medical marijuana for pain relief. [NY.Gov]
Similar efforts are underway in Illinois as well:
A painkiller prescription could become a ticket for medical marijuana in Illinois. Lawmakers there passed a bill making anyone with a prescription for opioids eligible for its medical cannabis program.
With this move, Illinois joins a growing number of states turning to legal cannabis in the fight against painkiller addiction.
“As we see the horrible damage inflicted by opioid use and misuse, it seems like a very low-cost and low-risk alternative,” says state Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, Ill., and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. [NPR]
Together, these developments mark an important milestone in the national discussion of how best to address opioid abuse. We’re now witnessing the first examples of state medical marijuana programs setting a specific goal of reducing opioid consumption through increased patient access. This process not only expands existing programs to better serve at-risk patient populations, it also establishes a regulatory model that can inform policymakers in other states.
We’re optimistic that medical marijuana will continue to demonstrate efficacy as a safer alternative to opioids and we’re proud to serve countless patients who are already reporting significant benefits. By working together, patients, providers, and policymakers have a remarkable opportunity to reduce harm and improve health outcomes for people in pain.