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Expansion of medical marijuana program debated at State House

State House Bureau

January 25. 2017 4:21PM
A close up of a bud on a flowering cannabis plant at a medical marijuana growing facility in Rochester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD – Steve Boulter was one of the first to arrive at Representatives Hall on Wednesday for a hearing on expansion of New Hampshire’s medical marijuana program.

The 74-year-old resident of North Conway made the long drive to let lawmakers know that therapeutic cannabis helped him with chronic pain, and he wanted to testify on behalf of others suffering the same condition.

Boulter was able to get his medical marijuana card because he suffered from chronic pain and had a qualifying condition (spinal disorder). A bill that would make chronic pain itself a qualifying condition, HB 157, was one of five before the House Health and Human Services Committee.

In addition to chronic pain, bills were debated that would add opioid addiction, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress syndrome and myelitis (infection of the spinal cord) to the list of qualifying condition.

Supporters like Boulter view the bills as a much-needed expansion of the therapeutic cannabis statute in order to ease patient suffering and help address the opioid epidemic.

Their testimony was countered by a representative of the Concord Area Public Health Network and the New Futures organization, which advocates for prevention of drug and alcohol abuse.

“For me, it won’t make any difference, but there are a lot of other people who are suffering with chronic pain caused by conditions that are not qualified,” said Boulter, who was invited to testify by Dr. Jerry Knirk, a first-term representative on the committee and an orthopedic surgeon in Conway.

Boulter said he worked for the past six months with staff at Temescal Wellness, one of four licensed dispensaries in the state, to come up with the best strain of marijuana to deal with his condition.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a whale of a lot better than opiates,” he said. “Anyone who has ever suffered with pain and had to take opiates would understand. It’s not something you want to do.”

Proponents of the legislation argued that expanding medical marijuana to include chronic pain would prevent countless New Hampshire residents from becoming addicted to opioids.

Matt Simon of Manchester, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, cited recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming a 24.8 percent reduction in opioid fatalities in states where medical marijuana is in place.

Yet, Dr. Molly Rossignol, a board-certified addiction medicine physician with a practice in Concord, testified that the idea of using marijuana to treat people with opioid abuse disorders is “unfounded and not scientifically based.”

“In the past year, I have evaluated more than 100 patients with opioid use disorders and more than two thirds have cannabis use along with opioid use. It’s clear that cannabis is not helping them reduce or stop their use of opioids,” she said.

Rossignol said scientific studies on the question are inconclusive and much more research is needed.

“We are going down a dark and potentially dangerous road,” she said. “There is no place for the use of therapeutic cannabis in the treatment of this disease (opioid addiction).”

Annika Stanley-Smith, a coordinator with the Public Health Network of Concord, urged the committee to leave any expansion of qualifying conditions up to the Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Advisory Council, which was created by medical marijuana legislation specifically to manage implementation of the law.

“They can look at the issue and spend the time you need to spend combing through the data so we don’t recommend something that could potentially be harmful,” she said.

Heather Mullins of Antrim took a more personal approach to the issue, common to many of those who testified on behalf of the five bills. She described the circumstances surrounding her father, a veteran with 30 years of active duty, deployed more than 20 times.

“Marijuana saved my dad. He would not be here today if not for it,” she said. “He has PTSD and chronic pain that the VA tried unsuccessfully to treat or years. Who are we to deny my father who served this country for 30 years access to the medication he needs? The data is out there that this stuff works. To deny people access is criminal in my eyes.”

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