Starting on Friday, doctors in Colorado will be able to legally recommend medical cannabis for patients who might otherwise get prescribed opioids.
That’s thanks to a new law signed in May by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis that makes Colorado the third state in the country (New York and Illinois are the other two) to permit doctors to do that.
The law opens the door for patients to seek medical marijuana for all conditions in which they might be dealt an opioid prescription, representing a major expansion for the treatment in the state. Previously under Colorado’s medical marijuana law, patients could receive a cannabis prescription for the following qualifying debilitating medical conditions: cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, cachexia, persistent muscle spasms, seizures, severe nausea, and severe pain.
The new law is both a victory for cannabis advocates, and a remedy for a nationwide opioid crisis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people die in America each day from overdosing on opioids. Those gut-wrenching statistics have driven activists, lawmakers and physicians to call for an expansion in medical cannabis.
Democratic state Rep. Eddie Hooton, who co-sponsored the bill that was signed into law by Polis, told NBC News that the legislation “was designed to give physicians a legal, open option to discuss [medical marijuana use] with patients.”
“It normalizes the conversation around the issue,” Hooton said.
Hooton said the bill, which passed the Colorado legislature with bipartisan support, wasn’t “about treating opioid addiction,” but advocates have touted the expansion of medical marijuana treatment as a viable alternative to painkillers that have proven lethal.
“Adding a condition for which a physician could recommend medical marijuana instead of an opioid is a safer pain management tool that will be useful for both our doctors and patients,” Ashley Weber, executive director of Colorado NORML, told the Denver Post in May.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the new law, under which both adults and minors are eligible. Stephanie Stewart, a physician in Aurora, Colorado, told the Post that the law “will substitute marijuana for an FDA-approved medication — something that’s unregulated for something that’s highly regulated.”
“Our real concern is that a patient would go to a physician with a condition that has a medical treatment with evidence behind it, and then instead of that treatment, they would be recommended marijuana instead,” Stewart said.
But as addiction to prescription painkillers continues to spread and claim more lives, medical cannabis may increasingly be seen as a safer alternative, even in parts of society that have historically been hostile to marijuana use. In May, for example, the National Football League announced a study into cannabis as a form of pain management, a response to the growing number of current and former players who have become addicted to painkillers.