Before the condition can be officially added to the program, the state’s hesitant health secretary has to approve.
Last week, New Mexico medical cannabis regulators decided unanimously to add opioid use disorders (OUD) to the list of conditions approved for treatment with the drug in light of the state’s ongoing overdose crisis. However, the decision is now in the hands of a Secretary of Health that is less than enthusiastic about the idea.
On Friday, Nov. 3, New Mexicans converged on the Department of Health to lobby the state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board as it met to consider adding opioid use disorder to the state medical marijuana program. In a statement released prior to the hearing, supporters said that cannabis helps reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms, like nausea and insomnia, and noted that it promotes restful sleep and helps reduce the intensity of cravings.
“People receiving medication for OUD have been shown to have better treatment outcomes when they are also able to access medical cannabis,” they said. In the end, supporters convinced every member of the MCAB to vote in favor of the change.
The effort comes almost a year to the day after supporters petitioned the MCAB last year. In 2016, the board passed the resolution 5-1 and sent it off to Secretary of Health Lynn Gallagher. Despite putting the state’s substance abuse issues as one of the top priorities for state health officials in her official bio, Gallagher denied the recommendation the board made last November to OUD as a qualifying condition.
Following Gallagher’s actions, over the last year, more than twenty medical practitioners and health professionals have added their names to a petition calling for Gallagher to designate OUD a condition eligible for medical cannabis. In addition to those professionals, 1,300 New Mexicans have signed a community letter urging the same and The Drug Policy Alliance delivered both letters at the hearing.
“New Mexicans die every single day from opioid overdoses, and we could save lives simply by adding one line to the Health Department regulations to make opioid use disorder a qualifying condition for medical cannabis,” said Jessica Gelay, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Cannabis Now. “We know that we need more responses to address the opioid overdose epidemic in New Mexico and nationwide. The goal here is to save lives unnecessarily lost; medical cannabis is a harm reduction tool that New Mexicans with opioid addiction issues desperately need.”
Anita Briscoe, a petitioner from Taos, led the effort for the second year in a row.
“I was compelled by reports from multiple patients who said that medical cannabis helped them kick their heroin or prescription opioid habit,” said Briscoe, in a press release from Drug Policy Alliance. “Growing up in Española I’ve seen the devastating toll opioid misuse have 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.”
The former medical director of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program, Steve Jenison, is also backing the effort. He says the early promise being seen is enough reason to move forward with the plan.
“It is time for New Mexico to move boldly and compassionately again by adding opioid dependence to the list of conditions eligible for medical cannabis. It is supported by pre-clinical data, by a preponderance of reports by patients and practitioners and by emerging human clinical data,” said the retired doctor Jenison, in the DPA press release. “In this time of crisis, with so many lives being lost and destroyed, we must not be dissuaded from acting when there is so much at stake.”
Those who would be most impacted by the move also came out to speak at the hearing and their stories were persuasive, leading to the unanimous vote.
“Medical cannabis helped me get past my dependence on opioids,” said Tony Johnson of Albuquerque, according to the DPA press release. Johnson went on to say he became dependent on opioids after being seriously injured and when the prescriptions became too expensive he found them on the street. “I’m lucky to be alive and I’m grateful that I had a condition that allowed me to legally access medical cannabis,” he said.
Chad Lozano of Las Cruces told the tale of his sister, like him a military veteran. She used opioid medicine to lessen her pain, “She died from an opioid overdose seven years ago. She was never able to qualify for medical cannabis. If she had, she might have been standing here today,” Lozano said, of his sister.
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