New Mexico may soon become the first state in the U.S. to officially sanction the use of medical marijuana to treat opiate addiction.
In November, the New Mexico Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board unanimously approved recommending opioid use disorder (OUD) as a condition that qualifies a patient to use cannabis. The final decision will be made by the state’s Health Secretary, Lynn Gallagher.
The board made a similar decision in late 2016 – by a 5-to-1 vote – but Gallagher rejected the move last June, citing a lack of scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for OUD. Gallagher turned down a petition signed by more than 20 medical practitioners and health professionals asking for her approval.
“While I share the Advisory Board’s concern about opioid use and its costs, I cannot say with confidence that the use of cannabis for treatment of opioid dependence and its symptoms would be either safe or effective,” Gallagher said in a statement.
The petition was submitted by Dr. Anita Briscoe, a clinical nurse specializing in psychiatry and mental health. About 25 percent of her OUD patients have used cannabis to reduce cravings and pain, Briscoe told the Albuquerque Journal.
“I was compelled by reports from multiple patients who said that medical cannabis helped them kick their heroin or prescription opioid habit,” said Briscoe. “I’ve seen the devastating toll opioid misuse [has] on individuals and families, and in my experience as a clinician I have witnessed the benefits of access to medical cannabis for people suffering from addiction. I want to heal my town.”
Along with her petition, Briscoe submitted 21 pages of relevant research including articles from the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health, and the American Journal of Addictions, along with letters from state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) and Rep. Deborah Armstrong (D-Albuquerque).
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez is opposing the move to add medical cannabis as a treatment for OUD. Now in her second term, the Republican governor is ranked as the sixth-least popular governor in the country, according to a recent survey released by Morning Consult.
Three of the five candidates hoping to oppose Martinez in her re-election bid next year have indicated they support medical marijuana for OUD. One of the two who do not, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces), has sponsored a decriminalization measure several years in a row, but believes that the state doesn’t “have the infrastructure” to legalize cannabis, according to Leafly.com.
Meanwhile, a new study by researchers at the University of New Mexico added some support to the -pro-medical marijuana position. The preliminary study compared the use of medical cannabis and prescription opioid use among chronic pain patients.
The results indicated a strong correlation between enrollment in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program (MCP) and cessation or reduction of opioid use, and that whole, natural Cannabis sativa and extracts made from the plant may serve as an alternative to opioid-based medications for treating chronic pain.
“Current levels and dangers of opioid use in the U.S. warrant the investigation of harm-reducing treatment alternatives,” said Dr. Jacob Miguel Vigil, an associate professor of psychology who led the study. “Our results highlight the necessity of more extensive research into the possible uses of cannabis as a substitute for opioid painkillers, especially in the form of placebo-based, randomized controlled trials and larger sample observational studies.”
New Mexico only allows medical cannabis use for patients with certain debilitating medical conditions. All the patients in the study had a diagnosis of “severe chronic pain,” annually validated by two independent physicians.
Vigil says that while New Mexico has been one of the states most affected by the current opioid epidemic, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths seems to have declined in recent years. That could be the result of increased enrollment in the state’s MCP, which has more than 48,000 patients.
“MCPs are unique, not only because they allow patients to self-manage their cannabis treatment, but because they operate in conflict with U.S. federal law, making it challenging for researchers to utilize conventional research designs to measure their efficacy,” Vigil said.