New Mexico May Add Opioid Use Disorder as a Qualifying Condition

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New Mexico cannabis advocates are trying to add opioid use disorder (OUD) as a qualifying condition to the state’s medical marijuana program, and if they succeed, this will be the first state to officially recognize cannabis as an exit drug for those struggling with opioid dependence.

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New Mexico health officials rejected a bid to add opiate dependence as a qualifying medical condition in June, but advocates are again taking their recommendations to the New Mexico Department of Health for a public meeting of the NM Dept. Medical Cannabis Advisory Board.

The petition was submitted by Dr. Anita Briscoe, a clinical nurse specializing in psychiatry and mental health. Briscoe submitted a nearly identical petition in 2016, which the state advisory board voted 5-1 in favor of adding opioid use disorder.

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After the November recommendation from the advisory board, NM Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher waited six months before rejecting the petition, citing a lack of scientific research on the efficacy of cannabis as treatment for opioid addiction. “While I share the Advisory Board’s concern about opioid use and its costs, I cannot say with confidence that the use of cannabis for treatment of opioid dependence and its symptoms would be either safe or effective,” Gallagher said in her rejection.

Briscoe has refused to give up the fight, noting that about 25% of her patients struggling with opioid addiction have used cannabis to relieve cravings and pain. With New Mexico so close to the Mexican border, cartels have lowered the price of heroin and Fentanyl dramatically, causing a spike in opioid overdoses in recent years.

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“I was compelled by reports from multiple patients who said that medical cannabis helped them kick their heroin or prescription opioid habit,” said Briscoe. “I’ve seen the devastating toll opioid misuse [has] on individuals and families, and in my experience as a clinician I have witnessed the benefits of access to medical cannabis for people suffering from addiction. I want to heal my town.”

Briscoe submitted 21 pages of research in support of the benefits of cannabis in treating opiate addiction, including articles from the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health, and the American Journal of Addiction, along with letters in support from state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) and Rep. Deborah Armstrong (D-Albuquerque).

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One of the major obstacles facing cannabis advocates in New Mexico is Governor Susana Martinez, who is a staunch cannabis opponent. The Republican governor has been in office for two terms, but is currently ranked as the sixth-least popular governor in the country, according to a recent survey released by Morning Consult. With her final year in office approaching, a Democratic legislature may ensure that she doesn’t win a re-election bid.

There are five candidates currently eyeing the gubernatorial position, of whom three out of five support legalizing cannabis for adult use. The two candidates who do not support legalization, Rep. Steve Pearce (R-Hobbs) and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces), are not as rigidly opposed to cannabis as Martinez. Cervantes has sponsored a decriminalization measure several years in a row, but feels that the state doesn’t “have the infrastructure” to legalize cannabis. Pearce is the most vehemently opposed to legalization of the candidates, but “has been moved by the stories of patients who find relief from the drug.”

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There is no timeline for when the decision on new qualifying conditions will be announced, but the advisory board is likely to support the addition of opioid use disorder to the program, as they have in the past.

The state may reject the petition, but there’s no doubt that Briscoe will resubmit her petition. Perhaps under a new, more progressive state administration, New Mexico will become the first state to allow medical marijuana as a course of treatment for opioid addiction.