It is estimated that nearly 500 New Mexicans die every year from opioid overdoses. Tens of thousands more struggle with opioid use disorders (OUD), with limited access to medication assisted treatment (MAT) like methadone or buprenorphine. New Mexico only has 29 sites that provide methadone, and these are located in only four municipalities across the state. We also still need more buprenorphine prescribers across the state. Project ECHO has helped scale up the number, but people are still having a hard time finding prescribers. The New Mexico Human Services Department is aware of these limitations and is working to improve access to MAT for New Mexicans, but these changes will take time. We need action now.
Expanding medical cannabis access for people with OUD can help. Studies show that many medical cannabis patients are already substituting cannabis for other drugs, including heroin, and it is helping to improve their quality of life. Research suggests that medical cannabis can ease pain from opioid withdrawal and related symptoms like insomnia, nausea and anxiety. It can also help people seeking treatments like naltrexone, methadone or Suboxone to maintain their MAT regimen. More than two dozen health professionals who work with New Mexicans suffering from addiction have signed on in support of using cannabis for OUD. And we are learning that states with medical and legal cannabis are seeing decreases in their overdose deaths. The body of evidence is building.
The New Mexico Medical Cannabis Advisory board recommended adding OUD to the list of qualifying conditions both in 2016 and 2017. And in 2017, a bill that would have added OUD to the medical cannabis program passed both Chambers of the New Mexico Legislature. Even though the measure passed with strong margins and was sponsored by Rep. Nate Gentry, a member of her own party, Governor Martinez vetoed it.
This legislative session, Senator Steinborn and Representative Ferrary have introduced measures to keep pushing this effort forward. Senate Memorial 55 and House Memorial 67 request the Secretary of Health to add OUD to the list of conditions eligible for medical cannabis in New Mexico. The measures also request that the Interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee hear expert testimony on using medical cannabis as a treatment for OUD as well as its utility as an adjunct or alternative to opioids for treating acute and chronic pain.
New Mexico led the way in 2009 as the first state to list post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis, and now Americans with PTSD in 28 U.S. jurisdictions are eligible to access medical cannabis. We have the opportunity to lead the nation again. And we have the obligation to ourselves to do so, especially with more than one New Mexican a day dying from an opioid overdose.
The intent of New Mexico’s medical cannabis law is to aid those who are sick and dying to access cannabis in a regulated system for beneficial use. With more than one New Mexican dying of an opioid overdose every day and treatment that is hard to access, we should be expanding our menu of options – not limiting them.
Jessica Gelay is the policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico office.