LePage administration rejects bid to treat opiate addiction with marijuana

An attendee holds out several marijuana buds at a 2013 High Times event in Seattle. (Jason Redmond - Reuters)

An attendee holds out several marijuana buds at a 2013 High Times event in Seattle. (Jason Redmond – Reuters)

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has rejected a petition effort to include opiate addiction as a qualifying condition for Maine’s medical marijuana program.

It was floated by activists as a way to stem an opiate crisis that led to a record 272 drug overdose deaths in Maine in 2015, but the Department of Health and Human Services determined that the body of research on the topic remains too thin.

In Maine, medical marijuana can be recommended by doctors for a battery of conditions, including chronic pain, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. New conditions can be added by law or petitions from the public.

In January, Dawson Julia, a medical marijuana caregiver from Unity, made the opiate addiction petition. It drew 50 people to a public hearing on the proposal in April, where many said marijuana helped them beat their addiction.

There are many similar reports. A Massachusetts clinic told the Boston Herald that it treated 80 patients addicted to opiates or other medications with marijuana, after which 75 percent of them stopped taking those drugs.

It has also proven effective in animal studies, including one published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2009 that found that cannabidiol — the non-psychoactive compound in marijuana — is “a potential treatment for heroin craving and relapse.”

State Health Officer Christopher Pezzullo and State Epidemiologist Siiri Bennett called the case studies and testimony “compelling” in DHHS’ decision and said they point toward “possible future approaches” for opiate addiction. However, they said human studies haven’t been published and more research is needed.

It may play into the 2016 campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in Maine.

David Boyer, the campaign manager for the pro-legalization group, called it “a prime example of why it is so important we make marijuana legal for all adults” on Facebook, while Scott Gagnon, a prevention specialist and opposition leaders, thanked DHHS on Twitter for “erring on the side of science.”

On Monday, Julia said he’ll try to persuade the Maine Legislature to pass a bill on the topic when it convenes in 2017.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s not going to stop the fight,” he said.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.