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State to consider cannabis for opioid treatment

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State officials are considering again whether to make opioid use disorder a qualifying condition that can be treated with marijuana-derived treatments.

The state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board is due to review a petition requesting the addition of the condition at a March 29 public meeting.

The board then will make a recommendation to New Mexico Secretary of Health Kathy Kunkel, who is authorized to make the decision in the matter.

“I believe there have been at least two petitions presented to the Medical Cannabis Board for opioid use disorder,” said Kenneth Vigil, medical cannabis program director for the Department of Health, “and the board has voted at least twice to recommend to the secretary to add that condition. The previous secretary did not accept or adopt the board’s previous recommendations as it pertains to opioid use disorder.”

In compliance with statute, the Health Department released a redacted petition. An unidentified person requested in a letter dated Jan. 18 that the board reconsider a prior submission, which was attached.

That prior submission stated, in part, “Over the past year, I have observed that about 25 percent of my patients stated independently that they were able to kick opiates with cannabis.”

The submission added that the writer and colleagues had more than 400 opioid-addiction patients reporting good results with cannabis. It also described the difficulty some patients had in being admitted to or being able to travel to other types of treatment programs and stated that medical cannabis should be viewed as a “complementary” treatment rather than a standalone one.

The petition also referred to articles and studies supporting the use of cannabis for opioid abuse, which has been called one of the most significant health crises in the United States.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who appointed Secretary Kunkel in February, urged adding the condition during her January State of the State address.

“I will direct my Health Department to adopt the longstanding recommendation from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to include opioid addiction as a qualifying condition,” she said.

She also stated that several bills this legislative session would seek to boost prevention programs, make overdose-reversal drugs more available and increase intervention and addiction treatment services.

The list of treatments that qualify for medical cannabis prescriptions has grown significantly since 2007, when the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act legalized medical marijuana use in the New Mexico, making it the 12th state to adopt such a law.

The 2007 statute listed seven qualifying conditions and also indicated that additional conditions could be added by the Department of Health. Today there are 22 qualifying conditions.

Vigil said several other states already have included opioid addiction treatment in their medical cannabis programs.

“One of the things we run into with legal cannabis is that it is illegal at the federal level, so that prohibits large-scale studies on the use of cannabis” for medical conditions, Vigil said.

According to one review of published studies, about 24 published articles argue that medical cannabis has proven effective in eliminating withdrawal symptoms and is often easier to obtain than other treatments, but other articles have concluded only that more research is needed. Medical doctors can be found on both sides of the issue.

An opponent includes a Colorado pain management physician who wrote an article on the Texas Medical Board website stating that cannabis might actually increase addiction problems for some users.

At the hearing March 29, the board-certified medical doctors on the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board will accept documents and testimony regarding the proposed new condition and will allow comments from the public. The meeting will occur at 10 a.m. in the Harold Runnels Building Auditorium, 1190 S. St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe. People also can submit written statements to the Department of Health before the meeting.

According to a January 2019 report from the Department of Health, Chaves County has 2,168 people registered to receive medical cannabis. Statewide, there are 68,995 registered cannabis patients. The conditions for which most people are prescribed medical cannabis are post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.