New Yorkers with an opioid prescription may soon qualify to join the state's medical marijuana program.
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker told reporters Monday that the Department of Health will develop regulations giving people the choice of enrolling in the medical marijuana program if they have been prescribed opioids.
"This is a program that we've grown responsibly," Zucker said. "What we are doing today is that we are finalizing regulations to include prescription opioids in our medical marijuana program."
This announcement means a patient could qualify to receive medical marijuana if he or she is prescribed an opioid for procedures like a getting a tooth pulled.
Zucker's agency cited research showing marijuana can reduce opioid use while eliminating the risk of overdose and reducing the risk of addiction.
While details are still being worked out, Zucker said the move could save "countless" lives by preventing addiction to opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, which are prescribed to reduce pain.
There are already nearly 60,000 patients statewide certified to receive medical marijuana because of conditions such as cancer, HIV-AIDs, ALS, Parkinson's disease, and chronic pain. 15,246 are certified in New York City. The program allows patients to use non-smokeable forms of marijuana. Under the change announced Monday, medical marijuana also would be available as a substitute for or in addition to an opioid prescription.
"That means, if an individual is taking a prescription opioid, they can use medical marijuana as part of the program they have pushed forward to hopefully come off prescription opioids," Zucker said.
A patient will not be required to demonstrate opioid dependence or addiction to qualify for medical marijuana.
"They have to come to me voluntarily wanting to get off of opioids," said Dr. George Moskowitz, a family physician in Borough Park. Moskowitz is registered to certify patients for medical marijuana.
"I can't take a person involuntarily and say, 'Get off the opioids because I don't want you to be on it,'" Moskowtiz said. "That's a lopsided relationship."
Initial figures from the city health department show 1,441 deaths from drug overdoses in the city last year — the highest on record. 80 percent of the deaths involved an opioid, but only 18 percent involved an opioid that had been legally prescribed.