Opioid addiction added to medical cannabis list

New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel on Thursday approved six new qualifying conditions for the state’s medical cannabis program, including opioid use disorder and autism. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s medical marijuana program added six new qualifying conditions Thursday – including opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and autism – in a move that will allow new treatment options under an already rapidly growing program.

The decision by state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel to adopt the new qualifying conditions brings the total number of conditions for enrolling in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program to 28 and comes after former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration rejected previous recommendations to allow those diagnosed with opioid use disorder to legally be prescribed marijuana.

“We need to explore and pursue every available means of responding to the health and wellness needs of our neighbors here in New Mexico,” said current Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January.

She also described the addition of new qualifying conditions as a long-overdue step after “too many years of status quo.”

New Mexico launched its medical marijuana program in 2007 – the law is officially called the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act – and the number of people enrolled in the program has skyrocketed in recent years. There were 73,350 active patients around the state as of last month, compared with 48,861 in September 2017.

The addition of more qualifying conditions could spark further growth.

In addition to opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and autism, the other qualifying conditions added to the medical cannabis program are three degenerative neurological disorders – spinal muscular atrophy, Friederich’s ataxia and Lewy body disease.

Kunkel, who was appointed Department of Health secretary in January, said Thursday that the addition of the new qualifying conditions will provide more options for treating patients’ symptoms.

“Thousands of New Mexicans may find relief from their symptoms through medical cannabis that they can’t get anywhere else,” she said in a statement.

Members of the state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board had voted in March to recommend adding opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition. The other recommendations were carry-overs from last year that had not been acted upon by the Martinez administration.

Former Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher, a Martinez appointee, had rejected previous recommendations involving opioid addiction in both 2017 and 2018. Martinez, a Republican, also vetoed a 2017 bill that sought to add opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for getting a medical marijuana license.

Opioids are a class of drugs that are used by doctors to treat pain but can cause addiction. Prescribed opioids include oxycodone, fentanyl, methadone and codeine, while heroin is also an opioid drug that is made from morphine.

New Mexico has struggled with overdose deaths attributable to opioids, as the state’s rate of 16.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 was higher than the national average, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In addition, a recent Health Department survey found 63% of New Mexicans know someone who is or has been addicted to opioids. The survey also found that state residents were largely divided on whether opioid addiction represents an illness or a personal weakness.

Meanwhile, decision to add the additional qualifying conditions did not come as a surprise, as Lujan Grisham had directed the Department of Health during her State of the State address in January to adopt the addition of opioid addiction as a qualifying condition.

However, the rapid growth of the state’s medical marijuana program has led to growing pains, and the agency in March adopted an emergency rule raising the plant count for nonprofit producers from 450 to 2,500 plants.

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