New Law Allows Coloradans To Use Medical Marijuana Instead Of Opioids For Pain

Aug 2, 2019

Colorado lawmakers passed several bills this year dealing with prevention and treatment of the state's opioid crisis. Senate Bill 13, which took effect on Aug. 2, allows doctors to recommend the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids, like oxycodone, to treat acute pain.

KUNC's Stephanie Daniel spoke with Kyra Buckley to discuss the new law.

KYRA BUCKLEY: Opioids are used to treat all types of acute pain, from broken bones to dental surgery, and we also know they can be highly addictive once a person starts using them.

STEPHANIE DANIEL: Yes. In fact, experts here in Colorado believe the vast majority of opioid or heroin addictions begin with prescription pain pills. The thinking behind Senate Bill 13, according to Democrat Joann Ginal, was simple. If doctors can recommend medical marijuana instead of opioids it could help curb addition.

"I believe in medical marijuana helping a lot of people. I've seen it in helping people with PTSD, with autism and now using it for acute pain may be one of the ways that we can also help cut down on opioid addiction."

BUCKLEY: Colorado was one of the first states to legalize the medical use of marijuana and it's already possible to get a medical marijuana card based on a doctor's recommendation. So how is this any different?

DANIEL: Well, the state has a registry that allows patients with qualifying medical conditions to get a card for legal access to medical marijuana. It includes cancer, HIV or AIDS, and recently an autism spectrum disorder. Senate Bill 13 adds acute pain. I spoke to a few experts about this and one of their concerns was the lack of scientific evidence to support using marijuana as a treatment. This includes Rob Valuck, professor of pharmacy at the University of Colorado Anschutz and director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention:

"If they had said, 'anything FDA approved,' I would have no trouble with it. But the state is sort of saying, 'We don't need the FDA, we'll just say you can do it.' And it's just a little concerning to me because some of it is going to be proven true, that it works, and some of it is going to be proven that it doesn't really work for that thing, whatever that thing is and there's going to be some side effects we find out about."

BUCKLEY: Colorado, like the rest of the country, is dealing with an opioid crisis. The number of people dying from overdoses rose more than 300% between 2003 and 2017. It's worth noting that people have had access to both medical and recreational marijuana during this time.

DANIEL: That is a good point. While opioid overdose death numbers did go down last year, Dr. Ken Finn doesn't think it's due to marijuana. He's against the new law and says the decrease is partly because of state regulations that have reduced the prescribing of opioids. This includes seven-day limits for pain pill prescriptions and medical providers are required to check the prescription drug monitoring program before writing an opioid refill.

"Patients are more aware of the opioid epidemic. I mean, I have lots of patients that don't want to use or be given a prescription for opioids. I have a lot of colleagues in the community that are not prescribing opioids because of the epidemic. So, there's multiple factors that might go into pushback on the opioid epidemic. But I can tell you, marijuana is not one of them."

BUCKLEY: This new law also pertains to kids and acute pain. It says children under the age of 18 can only use non-smokable forms of medical marijuana when they're on school grounds or buses or at a school-sponsored event.

DANIEL: Yes, but like adults, medical experts still say there isn't enough scientific evidence to prove it helps kids. Even Senator Joann Ginal acknowledges the lack of research. But while the bill was going through the legislature, she says they heard testimony that it was helping children with autism spectrum and seizure disorders.

"It's definitely up to the parent and the doctor to make that decision. And if it's helping that child, in seizures, like I've heard the testimony for, I don't see any reason why we are preventing people from doing that."

After Gov. Polis signed the bill, the Colorado Board of Health held an emergency rulemaking hearing last month to align their medical marijuana rules with the new bill. There will be another hearing in September to make the changes permanent.

BUCKLEY: Stephanie, thanks so much for the update.

DANIEL: Thank you.

BUCKLEY: That was KUNC's Stephanie Daniel. She was talking about a new state law that allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana instead of opioids for acute pain.