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Medical marijuana may hold promise, but federal law curtails research

Posted On: May. 1, 2017 12:00 AM CST

Can medical marijuana replace opioids? That is the question on the minds of those who deal with pain in workers compensation.

Anecdotally, some say yes.

Several states such as New Mexico have seen decreases in opioid use with the widespread availability of medical marijuana for pain management.

Meanwhile, given the lack of research into medical marijuana — including for side effects, effectiveness and dosage — others say the workers compensation industry is more cautious.

“We are all wrestling with the same quandary,” said Lisa Anne Forsythe, Sacramento, California-based director of workers comp government relations for Coventry Health Care Inc.

“The states can do what they want, but as long as it remains illegal at the federal level … that will be a challenge for payers,” Ms. Forsythe said.

So far, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.

And several other states are considering adoption of regulations that would pave the way.

But the federal government’s stance that medical marijuana remains an illegal substance — along with that of the new presidential administration, which has voiced skepticism — has stalled further research on medical marijuana, which has forced insurers to tread lightly as the industry adopts an evidence-based approach to health care.

Nikki Wilson, Coventry’s Omaha, Nebraska-based pharmacy product director, said medical marijuana studies “don’t go through the same process — consistency and potency is questionable.”

Chrystal Woodard, Tampa, Floridabased senior consultant for claims with Aon Risk Solutions, said replacing opioids with marijuana “is not as easy as people think it is.”

The medicinal makeup is not the same as that of recreational marijuana, she said. And then there is the accessibility issue, she added.

“It very well could reduce the amount of narcotics prescribed,” she said. “We just don’t know.”