A state at the forefront of the U.S. opioid and drug overdose epidemic is turning to its medical marijuana program to reduce suffering from drug use and addiction.
New Mexico health officials on June 6, 2019, expanded the list of qualifying conditions for the state’s medical cannabis program to include opioid use disorder, joining several other states. Other qualifying conditions that were added include Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, and three degenerative neurological disorders.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former state health secretary, campaigned on a pledge to open up the medical marijuana program to people struggling with opioid use and addiction after the previous administration rejected petitions for the change.
Lujan Grisham said the June 6 decision was long overdue.
“We need to explore and pursue every available means of responding to the health and wellness needs of our neighbors here in New Mexico,” the governor said. “Compassion must guide our decision making.”
In 2017, New Mexico had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths west of Tennessee, at 24.8 per 100,000 people. The mortality rate has leveled off as New Mexico adopted a series of pioneering policies aimed at combating opioid addiction.
Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supported health officials’ decision on June 6, 2019, to include opioid use disorder to the state’s list of eligible conditions for medical marijuana. New Mexico as recently as 2017 had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths west of Tennessee. (Associated Press file photo/Morgan Lee)
At least eight other states — from Maine to California — along with Washington, D.C., already recognize opioid dependency as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use, either explicitly or within the bounds of significant medical conditions, according to Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the California-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
Three states — New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania — have provisions specific to opioid use. New York, for instance, includes patients with opioid use disorder if they are enrolled in a certified treatment program for a personal drug problem.
New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board of doctors also recommended the addition of other qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, including substance use disorders linked to tobacco, alcohol, and stimulants.
Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel opted against that recommendation, noting that the category was overly broad and could include caffeine or even marijuana.
“Although I am in strong support for harm reduction in general, harm reduction strategies are not the same for everything included as a substance under this umbrella,” she wrote, suggesting that the recommendation could be clarified and revisited.
With the addition of the six qualifying conditions, Kunkel said doctors will have more tools for relieving symptoms that may otherwise be difficult to handle through conventional means.
Participation in the state’s 12-year-old medical cannabis program has surged to more than 73,000 patients. Most people claim eligibility because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic pain — afflictions otherwise treated in some cases by prescriptions to opiates or benzodiazepines.
In 2018, the Health Department under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez rejected marijuana access for opioid use disorder, with then-Secretary Lynn Gallagher expressing doubts it would constitute safe or effective treatment of opioid dependence or its symptoms.
That decision earned a sharp response from Medical Cannabis Advisory Board Chair Laura Brown, who said state law provides for medical marijuana use primarily to alleviate symptoms and suffering and not as a treatment of underlying disease or illness. She used cancer as an example, where marijuana is known to alleviate conditions such as nausea and weight loss from cancer and cancer treatments.
Brown said the board evaluates whether a condition qualifies based on current medical research, the likely risk and benefits weighed against other available medications, practices in other states, and consistency with New Mexico law.
— Morgan Lee