When new solutions to persistent problems present themselves, one must seize them. New Mexico has an opportunity to do so today when it comes to our growing opioid epidemic. But at least so far, we lack the state leadership to take charge of the situation.
It is estimated that nearly 500 New Mexicans die every year from opioid overdoses. Tens of thousands more struggle with opioid-use disorders, with limited access to medication-assisted treatment like methadone or buprenorphine. New Mexico has only 29 sites that provide methadone, and these are located in just four municipalities across the state. And we still need more buprenorphine prescribers across the state. Project ECHO has helped scale up the number, but people are still having a hard time finding prescribers. The state Human Services Department is aware of these limitations and is working to improve access to medication-assisted treatment for New Mexicans, but these changes will take time. We need action now.
Expanding access to medical cannabis for people with opioid use disorders offers promising help. Credible studies show that many medical cannabis patients already are substituting cannabis for other drugs, including heroin and prescription opioids, and it is helping to improve their quality of life. Research suggests that medical cannabis can ease pain from opioid withdrawal and related symptoms like insomnia, nausea and anxiety. It can also help people seeking treatments like naltrexone, methadone or Suboxone to maintain their medication-assisted treatment regimen.
More than two dozen health professionals who work with New Mexicans suffering from addiction have signed on in support of using cannabis for opioid-use disorders. And we are learning that states with medical and legal cannabis are seeing decreases in the rates of opioid overdose deaths. The body of evidence is building.
New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Advisory board recommended adding opioid use disorders to the list of qualifying conditions both in 2016 and 2017. And in 2017, a bipartisan bill that would have added opioid-use disorders to the medical cannabis program passed both chambers of the state Legislature. Even though the measure passed with strong margins and was sponsored by a Republican leader, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it.
This year the Legislature spoke again. Both the House and the Senate passed measures formally requesting New Mexico’s secretary of health, Lynn Gallagher, approve the petition before her to add opioid-use disorder as an eligible condition for medical cannabis. Also, the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board submitted its written report explaining its 2017 unanimous recommendation to add opioid-use disorders to the list of qualifying conditions.
The advisory board’s report is clear: Allowing medical cannabis for the condition of opioid-use disorder reduces harm. Responding to the secretary’s decision denying the board’s 2016 recommendation to add opioid-use disorders in 2016, the report states that the secretary’s decision was “misguided in that it ignores the lower rate of addiction seen with cannabis than with opioids risks of dependency of cannabis at 9 percent vs. heroin at 23 percent … when considering [the] low risk of cannabis addiction when used to treat opioid use disorder versus untreated opioid use disorder, which can lead to opioid overdose and death.”
New Mexico has led the way before. In 2009, we were the first state to list post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis, and now Americans with PTSD in 28 U.S. jurisdictions are eligible to access medical cannabis. We have the opportunity to lead the nation again. And we have the obligation to do so, especially with New Mexicans dying every day from opioid overdoses.
The point of our medical cannabis law is to aid those who are sick and dying to access cannabis in a regulated system for beneficial use. With a growing number of lives being claimed by opioid overdoses, and treatment for opioid-use disorders that is hard to access, now is the time to expand available options to New Mexicans, not limit them.
It is long overdue for Secretary of Health Gallagher to listen to the experts and permit compassionate, effective therapeutic treatment of opioid addiction and dependence with medical cannabis.
Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, serve in the New Mexico Legislature.