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New York to Offer Medical Marijuana as Prescribed Opioid Alternative

Officials with the New York Department of Health support that view that cannabis can provide a safer alternative to prescription opioids.

Adam Drury

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New York is set to significantly expand access to its medical cannabis program. Building off a change that added chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions in 2016, the Department of Health will now allow anyone with a prescription for opioids to use medical marijuana as an alternative. Officials expect the new regulation will help grow a program struggling with access issues. They also hope to get more patients off of prescription opioids.

If You Have an Opioid Prescription, You Now Qualify to Use Medical Cannabis in New York

Opioid deaths are skyrocketing in New York, which legalized medical cannabis in 2014. One investigation found a 135 percent rise in deaths between 2013 and 2016.

In 2016, the opioid death rate was 15.1 per 100,000 people, nearly two percent higher than the national rate. And in an effort to combat the rapid rise of opioid overdoses and deaths across the state, the New York Health Department is making a major change to its medical marijuana program.

Health Department officials hope the change will help reduce the use of prescription opioids. On Monday, State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker announced that anyone with an opioid prescription would be eligible to use marijuana as an alternative medicine.

“So that means if an individual is taking prescription opioids, they could take medical marijuana as part of the program that were are pushing forward to hopefully come off prescription opioids as well,” Zucker told reporters.

Studies have found that medical cannabis can effectively treat chronic pain, without the dangerous side effects and addiction opioids cause. Other studies suggest cannabis can act as a “reverse gateway drug,” helping people struggling with addiction wean themselves off drugs.

The Health Department hopes that allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis instead of opioids will reduce the number of patients who end up addicted to drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin and Fentanyl.

Offering Medical Cannabis as an Opioid Alternative Could Help Lift New York’s Struggling MMJ Program

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act into law in 2014. Since then, New York has struggled to grow its medical cannabis program. A short list of qualifying conditions, and restrictions on the kinds of cannabis products patients could access, hurt participation.

In 2016, New York added chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions. The Health Department also made it possible for nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to make a medical cannabis recommendation.

Now, New York has 1,688 licensed caregivers and roughly 59,000 registered patients. Yet the program has licensed less than two dozen dispensaries across the state. The program has grown, but not as rapidly as advocates and patients would like.

Zucker feels allowing those with opioid prescriptions to use medical marijuana “is another way to move the program forward.”

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