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New Mexico’s Health Chief Says Opioid Addicts Still Can’t Use Medical Marijuana

State officials have rejected opioid addiction as a qualifying condition twice now, ignoring evidence of cannabis’ effectiveness as an alternative to opioids.

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Last week, New Mexico's top health official rejected the use of medical marijuana as a treatment for opioid addiction for the second year in a row, angering supporters who have been looking to find new ways to mitigate the opioid crisis currently plaguing the state. The state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board recommended that the Department of Health adopt opioid use disorder, as well as several other new qualifying conditions, for medical cannabis this year, but Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher shot down almost all of these proposed conditions.

Gallagher rejected the board's recommendations to allow medical marijuana as a treatment for opioid abuse, muscular dystrophy, Tourette's syndrome, eczema, and psoriasis, but did approve its use for obstructive sleep apnea. “I cannot say with any degree of confidence that the use of cannabis for treatment of opioid dependence and its symptoms would be either safe or effective,” she wrote, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports. Despite the cannabis board's recommendation, Gallagher asserted that there was not enough medical evidence to support the inclusion of opioid abuse as a qualifying condition.

But there is a large and growing body of research that does confirm that medical marijuana can effectively reduce patients' dependence on opioids, however. One study has even found that New Mexico's own medical marijuana program has already been effectively reducing opioid use. The study, published in the journal PLOS One last year, tracked chronic pain patients enrolled in the state's medical marijuana program for nearly two years, and found that 80% of them were able to reduce their opioid intake with the assistance of cannabis.

Numerous other researchers have drawn similar conclusions. A study from Illinois found that 67% of patients were able to cease all opioid use after enrolling in the state's medical marijuana program. This April, two more new studies found that Medicaid and Medicare patients were filling fewer opioid prescriptions in states with legal medical cannabis. In July, another found that doctors in states with legal medical cannabis prescribed 30% fewer opioids than their counterparts in prohibition states, while also concluding that replacing pharmaceutical painkillers with legal weed could save Medicaid millions of dollars annually.

This is the second time that New Mexico health department officials have declined the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board's recommendation to add opioid abuse to the list of conditions. State lawmakers attempted to sidestep the health department by passing a bill that would have added opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez, who argued that the state's medical marijuana program was not equipped to supply the large number of patients that the bill would make eligible.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the Administration has once again failed to listen to the experts to allow the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid use disorder,” state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, who sponsored the 2017 bill, said in a statement, the Drug Policy Alliance reports. “In the heart of the opioid abuse epidemic it’s critical we use every tool available to save lives.”

“We lose one or two New Mexicans to overdose every single day. The Secretary’s failure to add this condition is discriminatory and stigmatizing for people suffering from opioid and other substance use disorders,” Jessica Gelay, Policy Manager with the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “It’s well known that New Mexico needs more options to support people suffering from problematic opioid use. This decision means that medical cannabis, a legitimate option to support symptoms related to OUD and withdrawal from opioids continues to be out of reach. I am hopeful that under a new administration science and compassion will prevail.”