In opioid war, nonprofits call for medical marijuana

Tony Johnson, 32, said he used to be physically dependent on opioids, which led to heroin use as a cheaper alternative. Johnson said the use of medical cannabis helped him get off heroin and then methadone. ‘I know I couldn’t have done it without it,’ he said.

Tony Johnson said he started taking hydrocodone, an opioid pain medication, after suffering a chest injury in 2011.

Johnson, 32, said that before he realized it, he became physically dependent on the drug. When the pills got too expensive, he turned to heroin to numb the pain, he said.

“When you’re hurting and you’re going through withdrawal, you’ll pretty much try anything to get rid of it,” he said Tuesday.

Johnson, who lives in Albuquerque, said he finally turned his life around about two years ago. He credits not only a supportive family, but the use of medical cannabis to help wean himself off heroin, then methadone.

As the state of New Mexico grapples with an opioid epidemic and one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the nation, the Drug Policy Alliance and others are making another push to include opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in New Mexico. The issue will be discussed Wednesday by the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

“We all know that cannabis is a far less harmful drug. So, if [addicts are] on that road to recovery — becoming abstinent is very difficult for most people and relapse is very common — medical cannabis can help in that transition and reduce the chances of relapse,” said Emily Kaltenbach, the state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit group seeking reforms of drug laws.

“No one has ever died from an overdose from cannabis,” she said. “But how many people have we seen die of an overdose from opiates? We should be supporting people who are choosing to use this in their recovery plan as they transition from dependency from opiates.”

New Mexico Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher in June rejected a recommendation from the state Medical Cannabis Program’s advisory board that medical marijuana be allowed as a treatment for opioid addiction.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, also vetoed GOP-sponsored legislation this year that would have added opioid-use disorder as a qualifying condition for the medical cannabis program, saying she didn’t want to eliminate a responsibility of the program’s advisory board.

In her decision, Gallagher said she could not say “with confidence that the use of cannabis for treatment of opioid dependence and its symptoms would be either safe or effective.”

“Also, I am concerned that utilizing one addictive substance to treat dependence on another without reliable medical evidence and human research studies is problematic at best considering our current opiate epidemic,” she wrote.

Anita Briscoe, an Española native and Albuquerque-based psychiatric nurse practitioner who proposed adding opioid use disorder to the medical cannabis program, said the process has been frustrating because so many people have worked to add opiate dependence or opiate use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions.

“How many people have died in New Mexico … when [Gallagher] could have signed off on it and cannabis could have prevented overdose deaths?” she asked.

Briscoe said the fight isn’t over. She said another petition will be filed this year with the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.

“Assuming that we re-petition, and there is no reason to think that the board would not approve this time around because they approved last time around by a wide margin, like 5 to 1, I don’t know if you want to say this, but what it’s going to take is a new governor,” Briscoe said. Martinez’s term expires at the end of 2018.

Joe Schrank, founder of High Sobriety, a treatment center in Los Angeles that offers cannabis as an “inclusive approach to addiction recovery,” said the nation needs to inject more compassion into its drug policy.

“Nobody is finding any range of recovery if they’re dead,” he said.

Schrank said the center, which opened about eight months ago, has treated about 35 people who are maintaining their sobriety through cannabis. Most of them had been addicted to opiates in some fashion, he said.

“I feel like places like West Virginia, they should be just dropping [cannabis] like relief agency rice, just dropping it over the hardest hit places,” he said.

“People don’t understand heroin and opioid addiction,” added Schrank, who had to cancel his trip to New Mexico to appear before the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee because of an emergency with a client.

“It’s not a decision to give it up” opioid addiction, he said. “It’s a process, and it’s a medical process because there’s such severe withdrawal and craving. People could promise anything they want, and they could arm themselves with all the good intention in the world. They’re just outmatched.”

Johnson suspects his life would still be in a downward spiral had it not been for cannabis.

“I know I couldn’t have done it without it,” he said. “If they try to give you Xanax for anxiety, you’re going to get addicted to the freaking Xanax. The weed was the best possible avenue for me. It was the only thing for me that did it.”

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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