Yesterday afternoon the Secretary of Health denied the recommendation of the Medical Advisory Board to add opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in New Mexico. The Secretary’s decision flies in the face of the overwhelming support of the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, which recommended approving both conditions when the petitions were presented in Fall 2016. The board is a group of expert practitioners who are appointed by the Governor and are tasked with review and evaluation of conditions for the NM medical cannabis program. At the board meeting November 4, 2016 members voted to recommend approving opioid use disorder (OUD) (5-1). Board members are all clinicians licensed to practice medicine in NM and, as a condition of eligibility they are also nationally board certified in their specialties.
For more than two decades, New Mexico has suffered from a disproportionate rate of opioid overdoses compared to nearly every other state in the nation. It is the leading cause of accidental death in New Mexico, far outpacing gun deaths and traffic fatalities.
“We have an urgent and ongoing crisis of opioid addiction and overdose deaths in New Mexico and the treatments and tools available are not enough.” said Jessica Gelay, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. “It is troubling and disheartening that Secretary Gallagher ignored the recommendation of the medical experts whose purpose is to review the evidence and make suggest qualifying conditions. Cannabis should be a first-line treatment option for people who are suffering from addiction. It can alleviate withdrawal symptoms that come with decreasing or stopping opioid, alcohol, or use of other drugs. It makes eating and sleeping easier, has calming and pain relieving effects. People should be able to qualify for medical cannabis with a clinical diagnosis of substance use disorder. People suffering from addiction have enough hurdles and barriers to care. Requiring people to get a secondary diagnosis of chronic pain in order to access medical cannabis is a form of discrimination; it reinforces stigma and stops people from seeking help for their addiction.”
Among psychiatrists of addiction medicine and in drug treatment settings, cannabis use for combatting addiction is gaining traction, with findings indicating that cannabis can act to calm symptoms related to opioid detoxification including anxiety, nausea, insomnia, lack of appetite, and pain in people detoxing from opioids. Furthermore, compared to most FDA approved drugs, cannabis has an excellent safety profile, a lethal dose has never been demonstrated.
In the midst of the national opioid overdose death crisis raging across the U.S, lawmakers and the media have increasingly highlighted strategies that treat drug use as a public health issue. But despite the rhetoric, the overwhelming emphasis of New Mexico drug policy remains on criminalization, and deaths from opioid related drug overdose continue to rise.
The Drug Policy Alliance recently released a report, A Public Health and Safety Approach to Problematic Opioid Use and Overdose that outlines a set of steps to address this crisis. One of the steps is to evaluate the use of cannabis to decrease reliance on prescription opioids and reduce opioid overdose deaths. Although limited, for reasons mentioned, there are credible findings that show medical cannabis is not only an effective pain treatment, it can also reduce the use of opioids and interact with them safely. According to published works in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Journal of Pain, states with medical marijuana laws are associated with a significant reduction in mortality from opioid abuse, substance abuse admissions and opiate overdose deaths are also lower in these states.
The Secretary also declined to add neurodegenerative dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease as a qualifying condition, also recommended for approval by the advisory board on a vote (5-0, with 1 abstention).
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is the nation’s leading organization of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. DPA fights for drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.