New York OK's Medical Marijuana To Stem Opioid Crisis

The New York State Assembly Health Committee approved a bill last Wednesday which adds opioid addiction to the state’s list of approved medical conditions which qualify a patient for medical marijuana. Proponents of the bill claim that medical marijuana helps to reduce symptoms experienced by recovering addicts such as nausea and anxiety. Medical cannabis advocates also argue that it is safer than existing treatments such as methadone or Vivitrol, although the research available does show that opioid-based therapies are perfectly safe.

According to a report in NY Daily News, Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan), who introduced the measure, said, "We have an opioid crisis, and people are dying, and this may be a path to keep people from dying and keep them from relapsing,” adding, “This is a very serious problem in our society and this treatment works incredibly well. The treatment experts should have this in their toolbox.”

Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, claims that there is growing evidence that marijuana reduces opioid-related deaths and addiction relapses. "Far from being a gateway drug, marijuana is potentially an exit drug for people using opioids," she said.

Medical marijuana is presently legal in New York for treating a handful of severe conditions such as cancer, HIV and AIDS, Lou Gehrig's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and some spinal injuries. And in November, Gov. Cuomo signed a bill which allows the use of cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Staten Island Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the 2014 law that legalized medical marijuana in New York, and is a member of the Senate's influential Independent Democratic Conference, says she is hopeful the bill can be approved before the Legislature's session ends in June. "If we can find a way to help people have productive lives after they've been exposed to the horror of addiction, why would we stand in the way?" Savino said.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Health Committee Chairman Kemp Hannon (R-Nassau County) says more information is needed about how the drug would be used and the impact it might have before deciding how to proceed. "I am sure that this is something that will develop as we move along," Hannon said.

The bill must now come up for a vote by the State Senate before becoming law. State Senator Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) says there is a possibility that the opioid bill could be merged with other measures currently being debated in the Senate which are also intended to improve patient access to medical marijuana, including increasing the number of dispensaries in the state. “We are working on a bigger, better bill,” Savino said.

Savino is hopeful the Assembly’s approval will spur action in the Senate before the Legislature is scheduled to end its session on June 20.

The Connection Between Medical Marijuana and Opioid Abuse

Opioid abuse fatalities have increased exponentially in the United States, with approximately 100 Americans dying every day from overdoses.

According to a recent study out of the University of New Mexico, conducted by Drs. Jacob Miguel Vigil, associate professor, Department of Psychology and Sarah See Stith, assistant professor, Department of Economics, there is a distinct connection between complete cessation or reduction of opioid use and enrollment in the state’s medical cannabis program.

The study observed 37 chronic pain patients who had used opioids multiple times daily and who were enrolled in the medical marijuana program over an almost two-year span of time. Results indicated that a large percentage of patients entirely substituted their opioid prescriptions with medical cannabis, a much safer alternative.

Survey responses also indicated improvements in pain reduction, quality of life, social life, activity levels, and concentration.

“By the end of the 21 month observation period, MCP enrollment was associated with 17.27 higher age- and gender-adjusted odds of ceasing opioid prescriptions, 5.12 higher odds of reducing daily prescription opioid dosages, and a 47 percentage point reduction in daily opioid dosages,” the study states. Meaning, that out of those who didn’t stop using opioids, many at least lowered their daily dose or began dosing only sporadically.

The study titled, “Associations between Medical Cannabis and Prescription Opioid Use in Chronic Pain Patients: A Preliminary Cohort Study,” was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

“Current levels and dangers of opioid use in the U.S. warrant the investigation of harm-reducing treatment alternatives,” said Vigil, 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… If cannabis can serve as an alternative to prescription opioids for at least some patients, legislators and the medical community may want to consider medical cannabis programs as a potential tool for combating the current opioid epidemic,” Vigil said.

According to co-author of the study, Professor Sarah See Stith, “The economic impact of cannabis treatment should also be considered given the current burden of opioid prescriptions on healthcare systems, which have been forced to implement costly modifications to general patient care practices, including prescription monitoring programs, drug screening, more frequent doctor-patient interactions, treatment of drug abuse and dependence, and legal products and services associated with limiting opioid-related liability.”

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