Maine DHHS to consider treating opiate addiction with medical marijuana

Have you ever been so passionate about something that you just couldn’t take no for an answer? So frustrated that others didn’t share your passion, but you were determined to find a way?

Dawson Julia has felt that way. At the beginning of this legislative session, he testified in front of the legislature’s health and human services committee. Julia was among those who asked the committee to consider adding addiction to the list of conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana and medical marijuana products.

Rows of Cannabis plants are seen in a state-owned agricultural farm in Rovigo, about 40 miles from Venice, September 22, 2014. (Alessandro Bianchi | Reuters)

Rows of Cannabis plants are seen in a state-owned agricultural farm in Rovigo, about 40 miles from Venice, September 22, 2014. (Alessandro Bianchi | Reuters)

I listened to that testimony (click here), was intrigued by the idea (click here), and have been learning about this aspect of the medical marijuana movement (click here). In one of my posts I wrote about the Legislative Council holding a meeting to consider allowing last-minute legislation adding the condition. My contacts report that, while receptive to the overall idea, the council didn’t feel there was enough time in the session to draft and vet such legislation.

But that’s okay. Because Julia’s frustration back in January led him to his computer to try to find another way. He studied the law that explains the process for adding conditions and saw there was a means for residents to petition the department itself, directly. Within minutes he was on the phone, got the necessary information and links, and was preparing his petition.

From the statute:

2Adding debilitating medical conditions. The department in accordance with section 2422, subsection 2, paragraph D shall adopt rules regarding the consideration of petitions from the public to add medical conditions or treatments to the list of debilitating medical conditions set forth in section 2422, subsection 2. In considering those petitions, the department shall provide an opportunity for public hearing of, and an opportunity to comment on those petitions. After the hearing, the commissioner shall approve or deny a petition within 180 days of its submission. The approval or denial of such a petition constitutes final agency action, subject to judicial review. Jurisdiction and venue for judicial review are vested in the Superior Court.

So, on Tuesday, April 19, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will hold a public hearing to hear testimony regarding adding “addiction to opiates and drugs derived from chemical synthesis” to the list of conditions that may be treated with medical marijuana.

The hearing will be held at the department’s main office at 41 Anthony Ave. in Augusta.  Julia is a board member for CAMP (Cannabis Action for Maine People), the organization spearheading this effort. He also participates in the legislative committee for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine (MMCM), another organization supporting action at the hearing.

If approved, Maine will be the first state to do so. Maine was the first state to add post-traumatic stress disorder as a condition, and now 18 states that allow medical marijuana have added it as well, according to Julia.

Julia and his team have already received confirmations for attending the hearing from people with substance use disorders as well as health and mental health care professionals. They are hoping even more people come and/or offer written testimony.  Links for submitting written testimony online and for participating in a patient impact survey appear at the end of this post.

The patient impact survey will be considered as part of the overall documentation by the department before reaching a decision. CAMP has put together a platform to address any transportation issues as well. Those who may not have means to attend can contact Julia and CAMP (info below). They have a Google spreadsheet tracking confirmed attendees, their location, and number of available seats in their vehicles, and they will match riders from various regions with drivers headed nearby or heading that way.

Julia, like all the folks I’ve been interviewing in this arena, is all about inclusion and community, which is something that is important to consider peripherally to the idea of medical marijuana. People in recovery who I know or have read about talk about connections as a fundamental part of their recovery process. Even more challenging, people in recovery from substance use disorders understand recovery means giving up their former contacts and hook-ups affiliated with their addiction and related behaviors.

People who may be able to access medical marijuana or medical marijuana products will also be able to access an already established and growing community. That’s like two recovery tools in one: a plant that can ameliorate physical and mental symptoms and a statewide community network that cares.

Another important piece of this effort is the wording of the addition: addiction to opiates and drugs derived from chemical synthesis. This wording spreads the net of possible drugs beyond just opiates, which is critical. In my personal and professional experience and in my interviews, anecdotal evidence clearly indicates to me that opiates, both heroin and prescription opioids, are only a piece of the drug problem many of our fellow citizens face.

Caregivers Catherine and Glenn Lewis work with clients who are struggling with the side effects and addictive nature of other prescriptions as well. Benzodiazepines are a big one. I spoke to a veteran named Dave who was quite open about the effects Klonopin had on his mental health issues and his addiction to alcohol.

Photo of the Lewises provided by Catherine and Glenn Lewis

Photo of the Lewises provided by Catherine and Glenn Lewis

I’ll be writing more about Dave in a future post about veterans turning to medical marijuana — he’s not the only one to have fallout related to legal prescriptions for benzodiazepines and/or opiates in the wake of his service. This fallout included more than one OUI while receiving medical care through the Veteran’s Administration. Medical marijuana has enabled Dave to reclaim his life; he no longer takes prescription drugs or drinks.

And he says for the first time since returning home from his service, he feels whole again. He feels focused and hopeful and connected to a community that helps him find purpose.

Other clients of the Lewises have reduced their use of a number of prescription drugs, and most say they drink alcohol minimally or not at all. Glenn, himself a recovering alcoholic, talks about the change in his own desires to use since turning to medical marijuana. He said, before, he would go into a bar, see something, think “that looks good,” and order whatever it was.

Now he goes into a bar, sees something, thinks “that looks good,” but then he thinks, “but it’s not good for me.” He said marijuana helps him to take that extra second to think about how problematic just one drink could be for him. Like Dave, he reported that legal prescriptions to benzodiazepines exacerbated his problems in this regard.

More information about the hearing can be found on this Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1143852182321365/

To participate in the patient impact survey click here.

Written testimony for the department can be submitted via this email address: testimony@campmaine.org

To contact Julia/CAMP click here.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.