Pennsylvania Approves Medical Marijuana to Treat Opioid Withdrawal
Marijuana has long been treated as a one-size-fits-all bogeyman for anti-drug crusaders. Claims by lobbyists and activist groups that cannabis is a gateway drug that transitions users to harsher substances is predicated on dubious science, but this messaging has led to the stigmatization of cannabis and a system of prohibition that’s lasted decades. Pennsylvania is betting on the notion that the opposite is true. Secretary of Health Rachel Levine has approved the sale of dry leaf medical marijuana as a means to mitigate the symptoms of withdrawal for patients dealing with the debilitating withdrawals that come from opiate abuse.
For many in the state, the news couldn’t come at a better time. The United States is in the midst of an opioid crisis, and Pennsylvania is one of the states hardest hit by the problem. In early January, governor Tom Wolf signed a statewide disaster declaration to more effectively deal with the problem. It was an unprecedented move for a public health emergency, with the intent of more readily mobilizing state forces to battle the problem at its root and provide addicts with the resources and support they need to overcome their issues. The sweeping declaration includes 13 key initiatives that draw from the specializations and resources of every state agency.
While this move to further decriminalize and reduce the stigma regarding the plant’s use wasn’t a part of these initiatives, Levine sees it as another prong in an approach to drug abuse that prioritizes therapy and compassionate treament over punishment. “It’s another tool,” stated Levine, “The whole idea of this program is to provide another tool in the toolbox of physicians to treat these conditions.”
In terms of marijuana research and decriminalization, Pennsylvania hasn’t been the most forward-thinking and progressive state. By the time a state bill was passed allowing the legalization of medical marijuana, 29 other states had already pushed through bills that allow the substance to be prescribed for cancer sufferers and others, and local laws allowing physicians to prescribe the plant were far more stringent than those offered in more liberal regions like Colorado and California. Until now, cannabis has only been available in the form of oils and extracts, and patients were not allowed prescriptions in excess of 30 days at a time.
While the plant has been championed as a means of prescribing relief to sufferers of cancer, this shift towards its value as a treatment for opioid addiction signifies a new perspective on how lawmakers and the general public perceive it. It could also yield a substantive and nearly immediate financial benefit. Dry leaf medical marijuana doesn’t require the costly processing that extracts do, and preliminary research suggests that allowing the sale of the flower could drop prices to half their current cost. This could result in far lower medical bills for individuals using the substance as part of their cancer treament process.
Pennsylvania is only the second state to allow this plant to be used as a means of mitigating the opiate problem. New Jersey put in place a similar initiative in April.