New Mexico, along with most of the U.S., is struggling to find a way to combat opioid abuse, overdoses and death, a problem often referred to as an epidemic or crisis. One possible solution, according to a recent study, is using cannabis to help fight the addictions to deadly addictive drugs like heroin or prescription drugs.
New Mexico Secretary of Health Lynn Gallagher has already shot down the possibility of adding opioid use disorder or substance abuse disorder to the list of 21 qualifying conditions for medical cannabis numerous times. Internal documents show the New Mexico Department of Health, which oversees the medical cannabis program, will likely disapprove it for opioid use disorder again.
The revelation that DOH officials have compiled more than a dozen studies that show cannabis not only doesn’t help addiction, but worsens it, has at least one producer in polite disagreement with the Martinez administration and two others openly frustrated.
NM Political Report reported last month that Gallagher told DOH officials to again research new medical cannabis qualifying conditions. One of those proposed conditions is opioid use disorder, or addiction to opioids.
According to documents newly received by NM Political Report, DOH assembled a handful of documents with citations for peer-reviewed studies that show medical cannabis may not be useful for treating opioid use disorder. In fact, one document reads, cannabis can have the reverse effect for someone trying to wean themselves off of opioids.
“There are studies that have shown cannabis use appears to increase rather than decrease the risk of developing prescription opiate abuse (1),” according to one DOH document. “Within the general population, studies have shown cannabis use is associated with an increased risk for several substance use disorders (2) and policy makers, such as the New Mexico Department of Health, should take this under consideration when making policy decisions (2).”
The DOH report did not include the name of the author or authors of the internal report and a department spokesman did not respond to questions. But the writers did caution the department about cannabis as a treatment for opioid addiction.
“The literature regarding medical cannabis and its potential use to treat opiate use disorders is poor in quality,” the DOH report read. “The significance of the risk of short and long term adverse effects from medical cannabis must be weighed against the desired benefit; in this case abstinence and recovery from opiate abuse.”
The DOH report acknowledges that other studies show cannabis’ usefulness in replacing opiates in pain relief, but goes on to say, “Giving another addictive substance like cannabis to opiate addicted patients is risky compared to current practice of giving cannabis to non-opiate addicted patients for chronic pain.”
Medical cannabis producers disagree
A former law enforcement officer—and former critic of medical cannabis—disagrees with DOH’s assessment.
Currently a medical cannabis producer, Darren White previously oversaw the state’s Department of Public Safety, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office and Albuquerque’s police department. White, who has also been an ally of Gov. Susana Martinez on many issues, said he respectfully disagrees with DOH officials on substituting cannabis for opioids.
“I don’t subscribe to that, I just don’t,” White said of the designation of marijuana as a “risky” substitution.
White said he acknowledges that there are conflicting studies about combating opioid abuse and addiction with cannabis and respects the differing opinions, but added that the risk factor for cannabis is significantly lower.
“There’s not a single person that has died from using cannabis, and you sure as hell cannot say that about opioids,” White said.
White announced his involvement in medical marijuana in 2015 after years of speaking against cannabis, medical or otherwise. Now, he helps run an Albuquerque-based cannabis production company and is also a medical cannabis user.
Like most issues surrounding cannabis use, there are conflicting studies on how addictive, if at all, cannabis is. Because cannabis is illegal federally, there are few studies on the federal level regarding the merit of cannabis use.
Willie Ford, the director of a New Mexico medical cannabis consulting company, which oversees several production operations, called it “fairly irresponsible” of DOH to not allow opioid addicts to try medical cannabis as a way to curb or eliminate dangerous drug use.
“With the [opioid addiction] epidemic as it is, I would try anything,” Ford said. “We’re talking about the lives of our mothers and our brothers and our sisters and our children and we should be trying everything that we can to stop the epidemic.”
Ford said there’s always room for debate on whether cannabis is addictive, but he agreed with White’s take regarding the dangers of cannabis.
“Worst case scenario, you’re trading a very toxic and addictive substance for one that is non-toxic,” Ford said. “If you had the choice between being addicted to a toxic substance or a non-toxic substance, which would you chose?”
Ford added that medical cannabis treatment doesn’t always involve tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance that provides the high cannabis is usually associated with. For instance, Ford said, the non-psychoactive cannabinol (CBN) can be used to treat sleep disorders or other symptoms of drug withdrawal without the effects THC provides.
Duke Rodriguez, another prominent New Mexico cannabis producer, agrees that medical cannabis isn’t limited to psychoactive substances. Further, Rodriguez told NM Political Report he questions the veracity of the studies DOH compiled.
“I’m not surprised that someone, with a little bit of effort, can find an argument not to allow the use of cannabis,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, like White, is a former cabinet secretary under former New Mexico Republican governor, turned Libertarian Gary Johnson. Rodriguez was in charge of the Human Services Division, which in part oversees substance abuse programs.
White, Ford and Rodriguez could all financially benefit from an expansion of the medical cannabis program. But, Rodriguez said, many of the medical studies that tout cannabis as dangerous or problematic for opioid addicts come from psychiatric organizations that might benefit from more frequent drug prescriptions.
“I think they’re voicing their pocketbooks and not necessarily the science,” Rodriguez said.
DOH runs a harm reduction program, which, according the department’s website, offers referrals for drug addiction counseling and “opiate substitution therapy” like Buprenorphine, which itself is an opioid.
Rodriguez said if DOH aims to reduce harm related to serious drug addiction, they should look towards cannabis.
“If you don’t want people to die and you don’t want people to get addicted, there is but only one choice,” Rodriguez said.