A state advisory board that makes recommendations to the Health Department on New Mexico’s rapidly expanding Medical Cannabis Program voted 5-1 Friday in favor of adding “opiate use disorder” to the list of conditions that qualify, a move one health professional said could transform the state’s landscape of addiction.
If state Health Secretary-designate Lynn Gallagher adopts the new recommendations — she has the final word — thousands more New Mexicans will become eligible for the already exploding medical marijuana program. Officials say it has grown over the past year by 76 percent, to nearly 33,000 patients from 18,600.
For decades, New Mexico consistently has ranked at the top or near the top among states for its rate of opioid drug use and overdose deaths. Anita Briscoe, an Albuquerque-based advanced practice registered nurse who proposed allowing people to use cannabis as an opiate addiction treatment, said the effort could help change that statistic.
The proposal drew support from health professionals, addiction specialists and lawmakers.
Medical Advisory Board Chairman Dr. Mitch Simson cast the only vote against adding opioid addiction to the cannabis program, saying he was concerned about substituting one addiction for another. The program already allows patients with chronic pain to qualify, he said, which he thought would include most patients whose opioid use disorder stemmed from using prescription painkillers.
Jeff Nelson, a board member who was absent Friday and unable to vote on the measure, also expressed a negative opinion of it, according to notes provided to the board.
But board member Dr. Laura Brown, who works at the Santa Fe Recovery Center, said that among her clients who are fighting opiate addiction, “those who are using cannabis are doing better than those who are not.”
Briscoe, a native of Española, said about 25 percent of her patients struggling with opioid use disorder have told her that cannabis soothes their cravings, relieves their pain and helps them stay off opiates. Three of her colleagues who certify patients for medical marijuana cards estimated that together, they’ve seen about 400 patients successfully kick opioid addictions with the help of cannabis.
Briscoe said she’s seen firsthand how addiction to heroin and pain pills has “destroyed, decayed and desiccated” her hometown.
And in a written statement Friday, she said the problem is only getting worse around the state.
“Since the imprisonment of El Chapo this year,” she wrote, referring to Mexican drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, “the Mexican drug cartels have dramatically lowered the price of heroin and are adding even more deadly Fentanyl to it, or are selling pure Fentanyl. We are seeing skyrocketing overdose deaths as a result.”
She submitted 21 pages of research to back up her belief that cannabis can be beneficial in treating opiate addiction, including articles from the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Addiction.
“Just imagine if [addicts] had access to cannabis and were able to kick their habits, how our state would change for the better,” she said. “Crime would go down, health care costs would diminish, overdose deaths would fall, and it would help our economy to flourish. Without the familial crisis of opiate dependence, New Mexico’s children would also be safer, families would be more stable.”
State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, wrote letters supporting the proposal.
The Medical Advisory Board also voted Friday to recommend that Alzheimer’s disease be added as a qualifying condition, and that health care providers who certify patients for medical marijuana cards be permitted to use telemedicine — such as meeting with patients via Skype — to increase access to the cannabis program for residents in far-flung corners of the state.
Additionally, the board voted to recommend that the Health Department raise the cap on the number of plants a grower can produce to ensure an adequate supply of medical cannabis is available for the increase number of patients.
“It’s your duty to ensure that adequate supply is maintained,” one member of the public said during the hearing, estimating that about 230 grams per patient in the state needs to be available in each four-month period to meet demand, while the current supply stands at only around 36 grams per patient per quarter.
The board’s approvals were greeted with applause from about 75 people who attended the hearing.
The board tabled proposals to add attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to the list of qualifying conditions because the petitioner wasn’t there to present an argument. A petition to add autism also was tabled at the suggestion of board members who wanted more information on the topic, including the effect of cannabis on children’s developing brains.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 505-986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phaedrann.