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Medical marijuana program may expand in Pennsylvania

Patients and advocates celebrated earlier this year when Pennsylvania's first medical marijuana dispensaries finally opened after legislation creating the program passed in 2016. The creation of the program has been a step in the right direction for people whose serious illnesses leave them dealing with unbearable pain and other side effects.

However, because medicinal marijuana is only available in expensive, highly processed, non-smokable forms and many insurance companies will not cover it, many who would otherwise benefit from the program find themselves unable to afford it. This could lead to people turning to illegally purchasing drugs off the street, which leaves them vulnerable to serious criminal consequences.

Advisory board's decision could help those struggling with addiction

Acknowledging those barriers to access, the state's medical marijuana advisory board to allow the sale of marijuana in dry leaf form. This form is much cheaper. The law prohibits smoking medicinal marijuana, but people who buy the dry leaf form will be able to easily vaporize it.

In another huge development, the panel also voted to allow people struggling with opiate addiction to use medicinal marijuana as a replacement therapy. As one of the hardest-hit states in the country's opiate and heroin addiction crisis, this move could pay huge dividends for those struggling and their loved ones. Marijuana does not pose a risk for lethal overdose, and proper usage may help people get off dangerous narcotics that could kill them.

The board's votes are not final. The state has a year to decide whether to act on them, but they do provide hope.

Marijuana legalization driving down opiate addiction

The news in Pennsylvania comes on the heels of two major studies, which suggest states that allow medical marijuana and recreational marijuana have seen improvements in opiate addiction rates.

While the authors urged caution in interpreting the results, they said it is likely that when people can use medicinal marijuana or recreational marijuana, they are less likely to turn to prescription opiates, which are much more addictive.

Indeed, marijuana is much less risky than heroin or many legally prescribed prescription painkillers. However, the federal government still unfairly treats marijuana as a dangerous drug on the same level as other addictive narcotics. Pennsylvanians can still run afoul of the law if they attempt to purchase marijuana without eligibility in the medicinal marijuana program.

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