AUGUSTA — About 50 patients, caregivers and doctors gathered in Augusta on Tuesday morning for a public hearing on a proposal to address the state’s opioid abuse epidemic by allowing the treatment of opiate addiction with medical marijuana.
State regulators are considering a petition submitted to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that would add opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.
Catherine Lewis of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine spoke in favor of the proposal. She recounted her own experience of going through withdrawal from opioids and then using medical marijuana to treat chronic pain from a car accident.
“Instead of being a gateway drug, it is an exit strategy for so many people,” she said of marijuana.
But Leah Bauer, a psychiatrist speaking on behalf of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians, said the organization is strongly opposed to adding opioid addiction as a qualifying condition because there is no evidence marijuana is helpful in treating addiction. She said marijuana does not help with withdrawal symptoms and is addictive for some patients.
“Marijuana may be throwing gasoline on the fire,” Bauer said.
Maine is the first state to formally consider allowing medical marijuana to be used as treatment for addiction to opioids and other drugs derived from chemical synthesis, said Dawson Julia, a caregiver from Unity who submitted a petition to request the hearing.
Julia said he expects numerous caregivers, patients and doctors to testify in person or to submit comments in support of adding opioid addiction to the list of about a dozen qualifying conditions. Cannabinoids prevent people from building up a tolerance to opioids, so they can take fewer strong painkillers, and medical marijuana can help relieve opioid withdrawal symptoms, he said. Typical withdrawal symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, muscle spasms, insomnia and anxiety.
Julia says researchers have found that opioid overdose deaths are 25 percent lower in states with medical marijuana laws.
In 2014, 350,000 Mainers – or about one in four residents – were prescribed 80 million doses of opioid medication, according to DHHS. The heroin epidemic has fed a spike in drug overdoses, which claimed the lives of 272 Mainers last year, up from 208 in 2014 and 155 in 2011.
The number of medical marijuana patients has grown in recent years as patients look for alternatives to opioids, according to advocates. The state cannot provide an exact number of patients because it does not keep a registry, but doctors in 2015 printed more than 35,000 certificates required under state regulations to certify patients. That number could include duplicates and replacement certificates and is likely higher than the actual number of patients, according to DHHS. There are about 300 doctors across the state who certified patients in 2015.
The public hearing will continue until 3 p.m. Tuesday.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has 180 days to approve or deny the petition. Under state law, she can consider public testimony and written comments, as well as consult with physicians and seek additional research at her discretion.