Deadly Opioid Addiction Solved By Medical Cannabis?

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That is by no means a definitive statement, but several new scientific studies and one in particular from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health just introduced a new science based angle. According to The Washington Post, researchers tracked fatal car crashes over 14 years in 18 states, analyzing the drugs-medical medical cannabis or opioids-found in the systems of those killed. They found that states, like New Mexico, with legal medical cannabis programs had lower rates of crash victims with opioids in their systems, especially among victims ages 21 to 40 or, the age group most likely to use medical cannabis. As the study authors cited new found evidence : “In states with medical cannabis laws, fewer individuals are using opioids and dying.”

“This isn’t Detroit. It isn’t Compton, Calif. We don’t have overcrowded and crumbling inner cities. But when the Centers for Disease Control last November (2012) announced that death rates for prescription drugs had reached epidemic proportions nationally, New Mexico was at the top of the list. Our death rate from prescription drug overdoses surpassed even our traditionally tops-in-the-nation death rate from heroin overdoses.” – Albuquerque Journal, August 12th 2012

A state advisory board that makes recommendations to the Health Department on New Mexico’s rapidly expanding Medical Cannabis Program voted 5-1 on Friday, November 4th 2016, in favor of adding “opiate use disorder” to the list of conditions that qualify, a move one health professional said could transform the state’s landscape of addiction. Anita Briscoe, an Albuquerque-based advanced practice registered nurse who proposed allowing people to use cannabis as an opiate addiction treatment, said the effort could help change that statistic.

Today, according to the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico’s drug overdose rate in 2014 was still twice that of the national average, the #1 cause of unintentional injury or death in New Mexico – 3 of 4 of those drug overdose deaths involved opioids or heroin. During the time period of 2001 – 2014, medical prescription sales of opioids increased 236% in New Mexico – killing and average of 10 New Mexicans per week. Yet the Presbyterian health system in New Mexico has a policy, to not allow their doctors to recommend medical cannabis in the state’s medical cannabis program, but have no problem prescribing those deadly pills.

“Research suggests that people are using cannabis as an exit drug to reduce the use of substances that are potentially more harmful, such as opioid pain medication,” says the study’s lead investigator Zach Walsh, a professor of psychology at University of British Columbia.

Briscoe, a native of Española, New Mexico, said about 25 percent of her patients struggling with opioid use disorder have told her that cannabis soothes their cravings, relieves their pain and helps them stay off opiates. Three of her colleagues who certify patients for medical marijuana cards estimated that together, they’ve seen about 400 patients successfully kick opioid addictions with the help of cannabis.

Briscoe said she’s seen firsthand how addiction to heroin and pain pills has “destroyed, decayed and desiccated” her hometown.

She submitted 21 pages of research to back up her belief that cannabis can be beneficial in treating opiate addiction, including articles from the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Addiction.
“Just imagine if people struggling with opioid addiction had access to cannabis and were able to kick their habits, how our state would change for the better,” she said. “Crime would go down, health care costs would diminish, overdose deaths would fall, and it would help our economy to flourish. Without the familial crisis of opiate dependence, New Mexico’s children would also be safer, families would be more stable.”

State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, wrote letters supporting the proposal.

New Mexico saw a statistically significant increase from 2013-2014 in overdose deaths caused by opioids, according to CDC state data. New Mexico saw a drastic increase of 20.8% in opioid overdose deaths. This not to say medical cannabis is a direct cure to the opiate crisis. But there is more than just a connection here, a true scientific correlation for medical cannabis as an addiction treatment for this current opioid crisis New Mexico faces. Though opioids and cannabis have vastly different effects on a user’s body and vastly different consequences as they both ease pain. Opioids were responsible for 28,000 overdoses in 2014 nationwide. Cannabis was responsible for zero.

Medical cannabis is legal in 28 states and D.C. Still, the DEA classifies cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same category as heroin. US Patent No. 6630507, held by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, covers the use of cannabinoids (medical cannabis) for treating a wide range of diseases. Yet under U.S. federal law, cannabis is defined as having no medical use. So it might come as a surprise to hear that the government owns one of the only patents on cannabis as a medicine. The patent (US6630507) is titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants” and was awarded to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in October 2003. It was filed four years earlier, in 1999, by a group of scientists from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

If state Health Secretary-designate Lynn Gallagher adopts the new recommendations — she has the final word — thousands more New Mexicans will become eligible for the already exploding medical marijuana program. Officials say it has grown over the past year by 76 percent, to nearly 33,000 patients from 18,600.

The opioid epidemic in America began hitting crisis levels in 2013 and now has cost to many New Mexicans their life since the epidemic starting ramping up here in 2001. Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction generally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed according the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The evidence is clear and the New Mexico Department of Health needs to make addiction treatment of opioids and heroin- a qualifying health condition to be included into the state’s medical cannabis program and allow that program to continue to help even more New Mexican’s. Patient advocates, addiction specialists and state lawmakers all have lent their support for the decision, which is now in the hands of the New Mexico Department of Health. Should the state decide to go with the medical cannabis advisory board’s recommendations, medical cannabis could be used as a tool to combat opiate addiction, bringing the Land of Enchantment to the forefront in the harm reduction model of addiction treatment in the United States.

Jason Barker
About Jason Barker 35 Articles
• New Mexico medical cannabis patient and activist • Grass roots organizer with LECUA Patients Coalition of New Mexico CERTIFICATIONS • Exercise Specialist Certificate for Personal Training / Life Coaching / Sport Nutrition • International Mountain Bike Association- National Mountain Bike Patrol • USA Cycling Coach • Bike Patrol-Central Ohio Mountain Bike Organization; Columbus, OH — 2005 -2010 • Bike Patrol-IMBA National Mountain Bike Patrol; Lee County, FL —2007-2008 • Youth Cycling Coach-Savage Hill Cycling Team; Westerville, OH — 2004-2005 • Isle of Palms Police Dept. - Beach Patrol — 1997 • Open Water Rescue Professional / Beach Patrol / EMT ; Hilton Head Is., SC 1994-1997