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Opioid Epidemic: New Jersey Mulls Expansion Of Medical Marijuana Program To Treat Addiction

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- New Jersey is considering an expansion of the state's medical marijuana program to include opioid addiction as a qualifying condition, but some experts have voiced concern.

More than 22,000 people in New Jersey died of drug overdoses in 2016. While the cure for opioid addiction remains a mystery, NJ Department of Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal says he's exploring the idea of making medical marijuana a potential treatment for the state and nationwide scourge.

"Right now the consideration is adding it as an addition to what's called medication-assisted treatment, that is the evidence-based treatment people get for addiction," he said. "When they're addicted it actually helps them get off and get into recovery."

Right now, patients dealing with opioid use disorder can only access medical marijuana if their addiction was rooted in treatment for chronic pain. The commissioner says medical marijuana also gives doctors another option when first prescribing for pain.

"It reduces the reliance physicians have on opioids to treat pain," Elnahal said. "Marijuana is an effective treatment for pain."

Psychologist and addiction expert Dr. Harris Stratyner says there's insufficient evidence that the use of marijuana will stop someone from using heroin or other opioids.

"There's just not enough scientific research out there to show it's effective," Stratyner says. "It may be dangerous and trigger opioid addiction if that's your drug of choice."

Elnahal knows it's an ambitious plan.

"What we want to do is set up studies that actually investigate if it can be independently used as yet another tool getting people out of addiction," Elnahal said.

Stratyner points out that many people who use drugs have psychiatric disorders and are self-medicating with either opioids or stimulants, and he fears using marijuana could cloud the picture.

In March, the DOH added five qualifying conditions for medical marijuana including anxiety, migraines, and chronic pains. The program has added 10,000 patients since the start of Governor Phil Murphy's term in January, bringing total enrollment to over 25,000 people.

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