Since legalizing medical marijuana in 2014, New York has maintained some of the most restrictive medical cannabis laws in the country. This took a dramatic turn on July 12, however, when the New York State Health Department revealed some significant changes to existing policy. New York residents with opioid prescriptions are now allowed to replace them with medical cannabis.

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Big Changes to New York’s (Long-Criticized) Medical Marijuana Laws

Cannabis is hard to research because of its classification as a Schedule I drugNew York’s medical cannabis laws have been criticized since the Compassionate Act went into effect. Aside from being limited to only 10 medical conditions, only non-smokable forms of cannabis were permitted. Edibles were also outlawed. Many patients had difficulty finding a participating doctor (there were roughly 200 when the program started), not to mention the very limited number of dispensaries that were available. Drug Policy Alliance deputy director, Melissa Moore, also once mentioned that medical cannabis prices in New York were “prohibitive for many people.”

Despite the exceptionally slow start of medical marijuana laws in New York, the future is beginning to look a bit brighter. Emergency regulations were issued with the New York State Health Department’s recent announcement that would immediately allow any New York resident with an opioid prescription the option to replace it with medical marijuana.

Chronic pain was added to New York’s list of qualifying conditions in 2017, a move that expanded the state’s medical cannabis program considerably. Now that opioid prescriptions can be switched for medical marijuana prescriptions, qualifying pain conditions in New York have automatically been expanded.

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Can Medical Marijuana Help New York’s Opioid Epidemic?

The opioid epidemic that has swept the US has affected each and every corner of the country. On average, 115 people die each day in America from an opioid overdose. New York is no stranger to this unfortunate epidemic. In New York, overdose rates from prescription opioids have quadrupled since 2005, while heroin overdoses increased 24% in just one year between 2013-2014.

Officials in New York hope that by offering the option of medical marijuana in lieu of prescription opioids they can focus on the state’s opioid epidemic. When State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker announced changes to the Compassionate Act, he said one of the goals was to help decrease the number of patients who become addicted to opioids after being prescribed them by a doctor.

Can offering medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids help New York’s opioid problem? Zucker feels it can.

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“If an individual is taking prescription opioids,” said Zucker, “they could take medical marijuana as part of the program we are pushing forward to hopefully come off prescription opioids as well.”

Recent studies suggest that that expanding access to medical cannabis can help curb opioid addiction. In one study, researchers found that when states enacted medical and recreational marijuana laws, there were reduced Medicaid opioid prescription rates.

According to authors of the study, “Marijuana is one of the potential alternative drugs that can provide relief from pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose. These findings suggest that medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder and opioid overdose.”

A recent University of Georgia study found similar results. It showed that state-level medical marijuana programs were associated with an 8.5% decrease in the number of Medicare prescriptions that were filed. Researchers of the study also found a 7 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions in states that residents are permitted to consume and cultivate cannabis.

When it comes to curbing opioid prescription and addiction, it seems like the more cannabis that’s available, the better. New York is hoping that by giving patients the option to choose weed over prescriptions like Oxycontin and Vicodin that they can begin to curb opioid addiction and overdose in the state.

Is Recreational Marijuana Next in New York?

While allowing New York residents with an opioid prescription to use medical marijuana instead is undoubtedly a huge milestone for the states mmj program, there is still quite a bit of room to grow. Medical marijuana still can’t be smoked, a strict stipulation that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is adamant about. According to Zucker, however, the state will continue looking at ways to improve their medical marijuana program.

There’s also a buzz in New York about legalizing recreational cannabis. In June, Cuomo commissioned a study that will push New York to allow adults to consume recreational cannabis. The announcement in June was made by Zucker, who said, “We looked at the pros, we looked at the cons, and when we were done, we realized that the pros outweighed the cons. We have new facts.”

According to New York State director at the Drug Policy Alliance, Kassandra Frederique, “New York has passed the point where this is a question.”

Big changes are afoot in the New York legal cannabis scene. Not only was an immediate emergency regulation filed that allows New Yorkers prescribed opiates to choose medical marijuana instead, but several officials are having a change of heart regarding their stance on recreational laws. It’s working everywhere else. Why wouldn’t it work in the Empire State?

For now, New York residents prescribed opioids have been given a choice. No longer subject to taking opioids for pain, medical marijuana should prove to become a welcomed replacement. What happens next in New York remains to be seen, but as the way things are going regarding legal pot, the state seems to be heading in a positive direction.