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Elnahal eyes marijuana treatment for opioid addiction

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NJDOH Commissioner Shereef Elnahal proposes expanding New Jersey's medical marijuana program to include opioid addiction.
NJDOH Commissioner Shereef Elnahal proposes expanding New Jersey's medical marijuana program to include opioid addiction. - ()

The state health commissioner is looking at the idea of expanding the state's medical marijuana program to include opioid addiction as a qualifying condition.

New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal made the reveal during a lecture he gave to doctors July 11 at the St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson.

“Part of our fight against the opioid crisis involves educating doctors in alternatives to opioid therapy,” Elnahal tweeted. “Medical marijuana is a great alternative.”

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, the health department added categories that would make a patient eligible for medicinal marijuana: anxiety, migraines, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorder and chronic visceral pain.

And of the 10,000 patients who signed up for the program since January, 6,300 fell under one of those categories, according to health department data.

New Jersey has 25,000 patients enrolled in the program overall, utilizing one of six medical dispensaries, formally called “alternative treatment centers.”

Currently, the program allows marijuana as a treatment to opioid addiction, but only if the opioids were used to treat an underlying pain, according to Elnahal. He wants that changed so that opioid addiction, by itself, is a qualifying condition.

“Medical marijuana can help reduce reliance on opioid prescriptions, saving many from a lifetime of addiction and possible overdose death,” reads a July 10 DOH statement.  

One obstacle, Elnahal said, is the federal government classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, similar to heroin and LSD. The Drug Enforcement Agency’s website says any Schedule 1 substance has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Lawmakers are also grappling with how to legalize recreational cannabis use. They say they hope to have that done by the end of the summer and have a regulatory structure in place by next year.

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Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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