Providers and advocates welcome cannabis as opioid treatment

Opioid use disorder added as a qualifying condition for a medical marijuana card, and stakeholders are happy to hear it

The New Mexico Department of Health has approved opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for a medical cannabis prescription, a move cheered by reform advocates and addiction service providers.

The decision follows years of recommendations from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, an organization within the Department of Health composed of medical professionals, that the condition join a suite of others that qualify patients, including cancer, PTSD, chronic pain and Crohn's disease.

The Susana Martinez administration, and specifically then-Secretary of Health Lynn Gallagher, steadfastly declined to accept those recommendations. But the new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has been seen by many advocates of medical cannabis as more sympathetic to expanding the program. She often expressed support for the medical program on the campaign trail, and was instrumental in establishing medical cannabis in New Mexico during her own stint as secretary of health from 2004 until 2007.

"There have been positive recommendations for years, the science has backed it up for years—but the sticking point was really the gubernatorial administration," says Jessica Gelay, the former policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance and a longtime advocate of expanded medical cannabis. "This administration has a much more evolved view on the potential benefits and the harm reduction aspects of medical cannabis."

Studies have shown that cannabis can be an effective method of treatment for substance abuse, both curbing withdrawals and addressing many issues, such as severe pain, that draw users to opiates in the first place.

"It's very good news," Emily Kaltenbach, director of the Drug Policy Alliance's activities in New Mexico, tells SFR. "It's been an issue that we've been working on for many years, and we're pleased to see that the new administration sees the need to add it as a qualifying condition, especially in a state that has struggled with opioid use disorder for generations."

Jeff Holland, executive director of Endorphin Power Company, a nonprofit rehab center in Albuquerque, says that under the current system of treating addiction with other narcotics like methadone, patients are trading in one addictive substance for another—albeit one that is less harmful.

"We've been stuck with the same options for a long time," Holland tells SFR. "I'm not a huge proponent of trading some rusty handcuffs for some golden handcuffs."

Instead, cannabis can be a great option for patients who want a less addictive means of quitting opiates.

"It's important to give a large buffet of options," Holland says. "When you have something out there like cannabis—infinitely, infinitely, scientifically proven to be less addictive and less harmful on the body—then you're just adding another tool to your toolbox."

Secretary of Health Kathy Kunkel also approved Alzheimer’s disease, autism, spinal muscular atrophy, Friederich’s ataxia and Lewy body disease as qualifying conditions.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.