Opioid addiction now qualifies for medical marijuana treatment in a move that Gov. Phil Murphy (D) believes will help tackle the opioid epidemic, which claimed 3,000 lives last year in New Jersey.

Physicians can begin recommending medical cannabis for opioid addiction immediately, according to the state Department of Health.

“We are pleased to announce that, as of today, opioid use disorder is a condition for which physicians can recommend medical marijuana to patients,” Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the state health commissioner, said in a press release.

Opioid overdoses are on the rise

Opioid drug overdose deaths are increasing in New Jersey. According to Gov. Murphy, more than 3,000 individuals lost their lives last year due to an overdose, up 15 percent from 2017.

Murphy made the announcement at Cooper University Hospital in Camden alongside seven of his cabinet colleagues.

“The opioid epidemic continues to devastate families and communities across our state,” said Gov. Murphy. “As we combat this crisis, it is critical that we use data-driven, evidence-based strategies to support individuals suffering from addiction and help them get on the path to recovery.”

Murphy refers to a growing body of research suggesting that marijuana can help those addicted to opioids by preventing withdrawal and reducing cravings for opioid drugs. Last year researchers also discovered that daily marijuana use was associated with greater treatment retention rates.

The move follows Murphy’s expansion last year of the state’s list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana by adding anxiety, migraine, Tourette syndrome, and two types of chronic pain. These changes resulted in about 9,000 new patients joining New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, bringing the total number of registered patients to about 34,000.

The addition of opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana forms part of Gov. Murphy’s broader strategy to combat opioid addiction. Additionally, the state has removed the prior-authorization requirement for Medicaid coverage of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), a scientifically proven treatment method combining medications and behavioral therapy.

Murphy will also make $2 million available to expand the services of syringe exchange programs.

He further announced that Medicaid would build opioid treatment centers at Cooper and at Rutgers’ New Jersey Medical School.

“We cannot defeat the opioid epidemic and we cannot win the fight against addiction, if we do not work together – and that’s exactly what we have been doing,” said Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal.

“While prescription opioid use is down, in the first few weeks of 2019 we have already had over 100 suspected overdose deaths. To save lives – we are coordinating an all-hands-on-deck response – across government and within the Department of Law and Public Safety. We are bringing all of our resources to bear to unleash a full attack on drug addiction. We are in this fight together,” he added.

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