New York regulators are moving to allow patients who would normally be prescribed opioids for any condition to use medical marijuana instead.
That means people suffering from severe pain, opioid dependency or other maladies will now qualify to receive medical cannabis, the state Department of Health announced on Thursday.
“Medical marijuana has been shown to be an effective treatment for pain that may also reduce the chance of opioid dependence,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a press release.
“Adding opioid replacement as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana offers providers another treatment option, which is a critical step in combatting the deadly opioid epidemic affecting people across the state.”
Research has consistently demonstrated the ingredients in cannabis can treat various forms of pain, including neuropathic, acute and chronic pain.
Adding severe pain and opioid dependency to the list means that 13 health conditions now qualify patients for medical marijuana in New York. Currently, more than 62,000 patients and about 1,700 practitioners are registered under the state’s medical cannabis program, according to the release.
Numerous surveys have shown that, given the option of using cannabis as an alternative to prescription opioids, pain patients would opt for the former. Unlike opioids, marijuana does not come with the same risk of dependency and nobody has fatally overdosed on the plant.
There’s also evidence that states that provide legal access to marijuana experience significantly fewer opioid-related hospitalizations. A study released this week found that medical marijuana laws were associated with an almost 30 percent reduction in the amount of Schedule III opioids prescribed to Medicaid enrollees.
New York’s Department of Health first announced its plans to add severe pain and opioid dependency to the list of qualifying conditions last month, and is now releasing the emergency regulations to implement the decision.
New York Sen. George Amedore Jr. (R) said in a press release that he’s been “strongly advocating to remove barriers and allow the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids because it will help patients, reduce the number of highly addictive opioids in circulation and ultimately, it will save lives.”
“We continue to be faced with an opioid epidemic that is devastating communities throughout our state. It’s important we continue to do everything possible to address this issue from all sides, so I’m glad the Department of Health is taking this measure that will help high risk patients, as well as those that are struggling with, or have overcome, addiction.”
The move from the state health department reflects an evolving approach to marijuana in New York. The New York Democratic Party recently endorsed full marijuana legalization, for example.
And Zucker, the health commissioner, said last month that “the pros outweigh the cons” when it comes to ending cannabis prohibition in the state. A report from his department will recommend full legalization, he added, but a date for its release has not yet been announced.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who is facing a primary challenge from pro-legalization actress Cynthia Nixon, encouraged banks to begin working with medical cannabis and hemp businesses.