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Lawmakers Debate How Cannabis Should Replace Opioids

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Lawmakers Debate How Cannabis Should Replace Opioids

New York is moving forward with a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe cannabis instead of opiates. New York’s bill provides an interesting contrast to similar bills in other states, and sets up for a debate on when cannabis best serves as a replacement for opioids.

A bill that would allow medical marijuana as a substitute for opioids in short-term scenarios cleared another hurdle this week in the New York State Senate.

On Thursday, two New York senators announced they had introduced a bill that would allow the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids in certain instances. New York Sen. George Amedore, co-chair of the New York State Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Abuse, and Sen. Kemp Hannon, chair of the Senate Health Committee, announced their bill and advanced it through the Senate Health Committee that very same day.

Marijuana For Opioids: Condition-Specific or Time-Based?

The big factor that makes this New York bill different than other examples of states trying to swap pot for opioids is that it’s not condition-specific, it’s timeframe-specific.

In Colorado, for example, lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis for any condition “for which a physician could prescribe an opiate for pain.”

In Illinois, legislators are considering granting access to people who are prescribed opioids the opportunity to become a temporary patient of the state’s medical marijuana program.

Under the current New York law, however, medical marijuana can be recommended for chronic or severe pain — but patients must have been experiencing the pain for at least three months or must be a situation where it’s reasonable for the doctor to presume the patient will experience the pain for that time period or longer.

The proposed law before the New York state senate, S.8820, would allow medical marijuana to be used as an alternative to opioids to treat episodic pain for conditions expected to last less than three months.

“When faced with patients who are at high risk for addiction, or are in recovery, physicians need an alternative to help with pain management without the inherent risks that come with prescription opioids,” said Amedore. “We know medicinal marijuana can be an effective pain management tool for chronic pain – this legislation addresses a gap that we have heard about from many physicians and patients when it comes to pain management. This bill helps patients, and ultimately, will help reduce the use of highly addictive opioids.”

Hannon noted that the legislation was about providing tools to physicians combating the opioid overdose epidemic — an epidemic that sees most users get hooked over the counter.

“Equipping doctors with all of the resources available to them to fight this statewide scourge is essential,” said Hannon. “Although we have passed crucial legislation and have invested millions towards education, prevention, and treatment, more must be done.”

Nationwide Trends Toward Replacing Opioids With Cannabis

We reached out to the Marijuana Policy Project to find out how popular this kind of short-term care option, where cannabis serves as an opioid substitute, is becoming across the nation.

“Yes, we have seen this before. The issue is that ‘chronic pain’ is pain that goes on for a long period of time, when in some cases, like after surgery, a patient may have terrible pain for short period and thus not qualify for the medical program and be forced to use opiates instead,” MPP Legislative Counsel Kate M. Bell told Cannabis Now. “Ideally, the qualifying condition would be ‘severe pain,’ as opposed to ‘chronic pain.’ Other states are looking at allowing medical cannabis any time that the doctor is prescribing (or would otherwise prescribe) opiates.”

Bell noted MPP tracks the language from state to state regarding how medical cannabis programs deal with pain and they are almost all slightly different.

“With more people recognizing that medical cannabis is one tool to help address the opioid crisis, I think we’ll see more and more efforts to ensure that the qualifying conditions in medical marijuana programs permit cannabis to be used as a substitute for opiates whenever they would be prescribed,” said Bell.

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