The New York State Department of Health today announced it will develop a regulatory amendment to add opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

“The opioid epidemic in New York State is an unprecedented crisis, and it is critical to ensure that providers have as many options as possible to treat patients in the most effective way,” said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. “As research indicates that marijuana can reduce the use of opioids, adding opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana has the potential to help save countless lives across the state.”

Opioid use joins 12 other qualifying conditions under the state’s Medical Marijuana Program. Currently, patients can be eligible if they have been diagnosed with one or more of the following severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions: cancer; HIV infection or AIDS; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Parkinson’s disease; multiple sclerosis; spinal cord injury with spasticity; epilepsy; inflammatory bowel disease; neuropathy; Huntington’s disease; post-traumatic stress disorder; or chronic pain.

In New York State, overdose deaths involving opioids increased by about 180 percent from 2010 (over 1,000 deaths) to 2016 (over 3,000 deaths). While in 2002, it was still relatively rare to have an opioid overdose in most communities, it is now commonplace throughout the state. In addition to the dramatic increase in the number of deaths in the past few years, the opioid epidemic has devastated the lives of those with opioid use disorder, along with their families and friends. Those with opioid use disorder are at higher risk for HIV, Hepatitis C and chronic diseases.

Marijuana can be an effective treatment for pain, greatly reduces the chances of dependence and eliminates the risk of fatal overdose compared to opioid-based medications. Studies of some states with medical marijuana programs have found notable associations of reductions in opioid deaths and opioid prescribing with the availability of cannabis products. States with medical cannabis programs have been found to have lower rates of opioid overdose deaths than other states, perhaps by as much as 25 percent. Studies on opioid prescribing in some states with medical marijuana laws have noted a 5.88 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing. Adding prescribed opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana will allow individuals who use opioids to instead use medical marijuana for pain relief.

The Department is continuously making improvements to New York State’s Medical Marijuana Program in order to better serve patients. Recent enhancements include adopting new regulations to improve the program for patients, practitioners and registered organizations; authorizing five additional registered organizations to manufacture and dispense medical marijuana; adding chronic pain and PTSD as qualifying conditions; permitting home delivery; and empowering nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients.

Senator George Amedore, co-Chair of the Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction said, “I have been strongly advocating to remove barriers and allow the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids because it will help patients, reduce the number of highly addictive opioids in circulation, and ultimately, it will save lives. We continue to be faced with an opioid epidemic that is devastating communities throughout our state. It’s important we continue to do everything possible to address this issue from all sides, so I’m glad the Department of Health is taking this measure that will help high risk patients, as well as those that are struggling with, or have overcome, addiction.”

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried said,”With the ongoing opioid abuse crisis it is critical that practitioners and patients have access to as many alternatives to opioids as possible. Evidence from across the country shows that access to medical marijuana for pain treatment reduces the use of much more dangerous opioids.Medical marijuana is a safe alternative to opioids, as demonstrated by the many patients currently using it under existing law.I applaud the Health Department’s continuing work to strengthen New York’s medical marijuana program.”

As of June 18, 2018, there are 59,327 certified patients and 1,697 registered practitioners participating in the program.