Original uncropped image from Laurie Avocado (Cropped version of [1]) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

August 23, 2017: Santa Fe New Mexican News

We continue to examine the issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana amid tales of anticipated benefits, including helping fight against addiction to opiates.

New Mexico’s death rate for overdoses is one of the highest in the country, and the state is looking for new solutions in its struggle with the opioid epidemic. This week, the state legislature’s Courts, Corrections, and Justice Committee will discuss adding opioid addiction to the list of qualifying conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis. Right now, medical cannabis is used to ease the symptoms for 21 conditions on New Mexico’s qualified list, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to ulcerative colitis.

Among others, the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit, is advocating for the change. “We all know that cannabis is a far less harmful drug,” said Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “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.”

“No one has ever died from an overdose from cannabis,” Kaltenbach 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.”

Earlier this year, legislation to identify opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for a prescription for marijuana was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez, who said it was the responsibility of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program’s advisory board. However, a recommendation to that effect from the board was denied by New Mexico Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher. Gallagher could not say that she had confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the treatment. In addition, she had concerns “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.”

Albuquerque Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Anita Briscoe, who proposed the addition of opioid addiction to the list, expressed frustration for the many people who have been working on it. “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.

She does not intend to give up, stating that a new petition would be filed with the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. However, she suspects that Gov. Martinez, who has another year on her term, is the real obstacle and is unlikely to change her position.

“What it’s going to take is a new governor,” Briscoe said.—Marian Conway