Arizona Legislature Ready to Approve Using Medical Marijuana to Treat Opioid AbuseEXPAND
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Arizona Legislature Ready to Approve Using Medical Marijuana to Treat Opioid Abuse

Medical marijuana will soon be recommended as a treatment for opioid addiction if a Republican-sponsored bill quietly progressing through the Arizona Legislature is successful.

House Bill 2064, introduced by Representative Vince Leach, was originally intended only to ban dispensaries from selling edibles in packaging that could be appealing to children. But a little-noticed amendment to the bill would also add opioid use disorder to the list of medical conditions that can legally be treated with medical marijuana.

"HB 2064 went from being something that I found, in its original language and apparent intent, annoying," said Mikel Weisser, the executive director at the Arizona chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, (NORML). "Now, with the opioid use disorder added, it’s something I want to see happen."

Using marijuana to treat opioid addiction is highly controversial. But, surprisingly enough, what would amount to a major change in state policy has received virtually no opposition so far.

When the bill came before the Senate Commerce and Public Safety committee on Monday, Ed Gogek — author of Marijuana Debunked: A handbook for parents, pundits and politicians who want to know the case against legalization — was the only one to testify against it.

As soon as he was done talking, the committee passed the bill unanimously, without any further discussion. It has already cleared the House of Representatives.

Equally surprising is the bill's sponsor. Leach, a Republican from Saddlebrooke, isn't exactly known for being a friend of the medical marijuana industry. Ever year, he introduces a long list of legislation that targets dispensaries and cardholders.

He didn't immediately respond to a request to a comment on Thursday afternoon about his change of heart. But Representative Randy Friese, a Democrat from Tucson, said that the Democratic caucus had negotiated with Leach to get the amendment added to the bill.

Making any changes to voter-approved ballot initiative like Arizona's medical marijuana law requires a three-fourths majority. So this was a rare instance where Democrats had some leverage, since the bill wouldn't have been able to pass through the House of Representatives without their support.

"When the votes weren’t there, Mr. Leach went back to the drawing board and apparently concluded that debilitating medical conditions should now include opioid use disorder," said Kevin DeMenna, a lobbyist for the Arizona Dispensary Association.

Though his client had originally opposed the bill, it's now "a much improved piece of legislation," DeMenna said.

Currently, state law allows doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients who suffer from conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, Crohn's disease, or anything that causes muscle spasms, severe nausea, or chronic pain. Post-traumatic stress disorder was added to the list in 2014, after some debate.

Eventually, the Arizona Dispensary Association would eventually like to get rid of that list of qualifying conditions altogether, leaving it up to doctors to determine who should get a medical marijuana card. In the meantime, DeMenna said, adding opioid addiction to the list is a step in the right direction.

Whether Governor Doug Ducey — who, like Leach, is no fan of medical marijuana — will sign the bill is another question. The idea of using cannabis to treat opioid addiction had been floated during this year's special session, but was rejected outright, Mikel Weisser of NORML pointed out.

"I’m not sure that will get the reception that we want on the Ninth Floor," he said. "But I think it’s a real step forward to be a state that’s considering addressing opioid dependency by looking at medical marijuana."

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