Commentary: Medical cannabis could help treat mental health conditions

An Israeli woman prepares cannabis cigarettes in the Tikkun Olam greenhouse, near the northern Israeli city of Safed, on November 1, 2012, where the company grows medical cannabis. Tikkun Olam has developed unique strains of the drug without psychoactive effects but with improved anti-inflammatory properties. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Commentary by Dr. Andrew Rizzo, an emergency room physician in Brooklyn, New York

Medical experts are still learning about the significant physical toll the coronavirus takes on the body, even as our state thankfully flattens the infection curve and slows the rate of deaths. But another, less-visible health crisis stemming from the virus looms: the widespread toll exacted on our mental health by the pandemic and its attendant isolation, financial fallout, fear and death.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half the U.S. population believes this unprecedented crisis is harming their mental health. At the same time, experts warn that the nation’s already underfunded and overextended mental health system is woefully unprepared to handle the coming wave of people desperate for help.

While a complete overhaul of the system would take years, New York officials can help provide quick relief to many by granting physicians more discretion in prescribing medical cannabis to their patients, including, but not limited to, mental health conditions.

Research has shown that cannabis, when used in lower doses, can be effective in treating anxiety. In one national survey, nearly half of U.S. adults who use cannabis said they did so to relieve symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. And trusting doctors – who know their patients far better than policymakers – to make treatment decisions is not only smart and humane, but also a recommendation New York’s own Department of Health has made.

In a 2018 report, the DOH listed several recommendations for expanding and improving the state’s medical cannabis program, which is among the most restrictive of its kind in the nation. The very first recommendation called for “affording practitioners more clinical discretion in determining whether or not to certify patients for medical marijuana, based on an evaluation of the patient’s condition, past treatment, and the overall risks versus benefits for each patient.”

Two years later, that recommendation has not been implemented, though the governor and state Legislature did add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for the medical cannabis program in 2017. PTSD is the only mental health condition on the list.

However, New York has made modest advancements in expanding access to medical cannabis by giving prescribing privileges to more health care professionals. In 2017, the DOH adopted regulations allowing physician assistants to register with the medical cannabis program if they met certain criteria.

Since then, according to DOH statistics, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have contributed to a 33.2 percent increase in available practitioners statewide. And as of June 2018, nurse practitioners and physician assistants comprised 21.5 percent of all practitioners in the program statewide.

In light of the public health crisis, state officials now must consider similarly expanding the medical cannabis program to help more people in need of care. In 2018, the DOH recognized the need to expand New York’s medical cannabis program to “reach patients who may be self-medicating with marijuana from sources that are not regulated or held to the same high-quality standards as the medical marijuana products manufactured by registered organizations in New York state.”

Now is the time to act. This need is greater now than ever before, as thousands of New Yorkers are suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and unable to legally purchase a safe and regulated product that could help them feel better.

The state should continue its efforts to expand its medical cannabis program, particularly as so many New Yorkers face unprecedented levels of uncertainty and stress due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the significant economic fallout it has caused. At a time when we are hailing our health care professionals as heroes for their frontline roles in the fight against this virus, we should afford them the trust and ability to make the best treatment decisions on behalf of, and in close consultation with, their patients.

Andrew Rizzo Dr. Andrew Rizzo is an emergency room physician in Brooklyn, New York