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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar spoke at a treatment facility in Kettering for newborns suffering from opioid dependence on Friday. Flanking Azar is, left, foster mother Cyndi Swafford, and the center's founder and director Jill Kingston. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar spoke at a treatment facility in Kettering for newborns suffering from opioid dependence on Friday. Flanking Azar is, left, foster mother Cyndi Swafford, and the center's founder and director Jill Kingston. (Photo by Megan Bachman)

Secretary of Health and Human Services Azar dismisses medical marijuana

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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, visiting the Dayton area recently to learn about responses to the opioid crisis, said he sees no role for medical marijuana as a pain relief alternative to prescription opioids.

“I would want to emphasize first that there really is no such thing as medical marijuana,” Azar said at a press conference Friday in Kettering. “We have treatments that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are … proven to be safe and effective for pain, safe and effective for other conditions.”

“There is no FDA approved use of marijuana, a botanical plant,” he added. “I  want to be very clear about that.”

In December, Cresco Labs began construction in Yellow Springs on the first medical marijuana cultivation facility in Ohio. Legislators legalized medical marijuana in 2016 and approved Cresco Labs for one of 12 large-scale cultivation licenses in the state last year. 

Azar’s comment came in response to a question from the Yellow Springs News about the role that medical marijuana might play as a pain relief alternative to prescription opioids, citing a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year that found marijuana legalization in Colorado correlated with a reduction of opioid deaths there by 6.5 percent in two years.

Azar, a former president of the U.S. arm of the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly & Co., said the focus of the administration is instead on a public-private partnership to research new pain relief alternatives.

“Over $750 million just in 2019 alone is going to be dedicated to the National Institutes of Health working in a public-private partnership to try to develop the next generations of pain therapies that are not opioids, as well as to develop the best evidence around alternative ways of treating pain that do not involve opioids,” Azar said. “So that’s where our focus is.”

In response to Azar’s statement, Cresco  co-founder Charlie Bachtell stated in an email this week, “The Secretary gave a technically correct statement. While the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and impossible to deny, we all can agree that the FDA’s approval of more research on this subject matter would be beneficial.”

Among the qualifying medical conditions that can soon be treated with medical marijuana in Ohio are “pain that is either chronic and severe or intractable,” according to the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program. While 29 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, marijuana is listed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” a classification that the DEA reaffirmed in 2016. Meanwhile, medical marijuana will be available to Ohioans with qualifying medical conditions beginning in September.

Azar emphasized that the opioid crisis should be tackled with a combination of prevention and treatment. He cited statistics that opioid-related deaths in Ohio rose by 30 percent last year, and said his visit to the Dayton area has reinforced his sense of urgency to tackle the crisis.

“The crisis has hit hard in the Midwest and Ohio in particular,” he said. Ohio was second in the nation in drug overdose deaths in 2016 and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Azar was visiting Brigid’s Path in Kettering, an inpatient facility that treats newborns exposed to opioids in the womb, helps mothers to recover from their addiction and supports families in this transition. The babies often need to be held for 24 hours per day, according to one volunteer at the center, and not a single baby coming through the facility has had to enter foster care.

Azar was there to learn about the facility, which is currently privately funded. He also discussed with U.S. Representative Mike Turner, R-Dayton, options for federal funding the facility, and others like it, through Medicaid. Turner recently introduced legislation that would clear the way for states to use Medicaid to fund them.

Since the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency last year, the Department of Health and Human Services has begun working closely with communities “hard hit by this crisis,” Azar said. The department is also confronting specific health challenges presented by the epidemic, including the “heartbreaking challenge of infants who are born dependent on opioids,” Azar said. 

“These voices help inform us of what’s happening on the local level to try to help  … the people on the front lines of this war,” Azar said of his visit. He ended with a plea for community-based healing.

“As a country we need to step up to support each other and heal each other, together.”

Azar, who was confirmed in January to replace Tom Price as health secretary, also oversees the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health, among other divisions.

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5 Responses to “Secretary of Health and Human Services Azar dismisses medical marijuana”

  1. AlphaFemale says:

    How the hell do they expect some people to blindly take a vaccine without extensive research when there’s this brick wall stigma against medical marijuana that still exists? People aren’t trying to be opportunists but the hypocrisy of the situation bares mentioning. The powers that be always divert attention away from any glaring discrepancies by focusing on more emotionally charged issues like abortion. Tell me if a person losses a body part that is of their own flesh, is that part enough human for sanctified burial and disposal as a once living organism? I know someone who just lost a toe-should we make arrangements?
    OMG, ‘she just compared a baby to a toe’–well why the hell not; God made the toe, did he not? It is appalling the way emotions over women’s rights are used to sway political opinion and demean women in this country. It’s pathetic.

  2. Stevey Littlebrook says:

    Some people definitely claim medicinal marijuana helps relieve their chronic pain in conditions like Fibromyalgia and MS. Some of these long haul symptoms that people are now experiencing from covid-19 may also respond to medical marijuana and would probably be worth a try rather than getting people addicted to stronger pain relievers like opioids which would ultimately add to their problems especially if they’re recovering addicts. I don’t know why there isn’t an emergency acceptance for adding some of those conditions to the list of those qualifying for medical marijuana treatment. DeWine should look into that, Sooner rather than Later. Please. It may not be a ‘cure all’ but might allow some to fend off addiction or relapse.

  3. Disappointed Reader says:

    It’s irresponsible to allow comments promoting medical marijuana if you prohibit any discussions advising cautions for certain people. Just saying…

  4. Jethroine Fontaine-Clampette says:

    Last night on a particular radio program I occasionally listen to they were discussing the medical properties of ‘magic mushrooms’ and other naturally occurring botanicals that the state of Oregon has decriminalized that some believe useful in treating certain mental illnesses.

    I have limited knowledge of psychedelics but as a ‘child of the 60’s’ I have had slight experimental acquaintance which I found “unfavorable.” There is no one shoe that fits all concerning many health treatments; it’s best to be mindful of what works for oneself. That said, it certainly must be an error to incarcerate individuals for possession of small amounts of herbs found in nature that are useful for medicinal purposes. Best regards & Merry This & Merry That 🙂

  5. Malcolm Kyle says:

    Jesus specifically told his disciples to “anoint” people. That anointing took place using a specific formula made from a recipe found in the Old Testament book of Exodus.

    That recipe (Exodus 30:23) includes about 6 pounds of “kaneh-bosen”.

    According to many biblical scholars, “kaneh-bosen” was/is Cannabis (Marijuana).
    Most of the diseases mentioned as being healed miraculously after anointing are, curiously, the same ones that cannabis can heal today. Things like epilepsy, leprosy, and “crooked limbs” (an obvious reference to multiple sclerosis).

    Exodus 30:
    23 Moreover, the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even 250 shekels, and of qaneh-bosm [cannabis] 250 shekels, 24 And of cassia 500 shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: 25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy anointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. 26 And thous shalt anoint the tabernacle of the congregation therewith, and the ark of the testimony, 27 And the table and all his vessels, and the candlestick and his vessels, and the altar of incense, 28 And the altar of burnt offerings with all his vessels, and the laver and his foot. 29 And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy.

    Carl Ruck, professor of classical mythology at Boston University: “There can be little doubt about a role for cannabis in Judaic religion.”

    Dr. Ethan Russo: “Assyrian medical tablets in the Louvre collection translate to “So that god of man and man should be in good rapport, with hellebore, cannabis, and lupine you will rub him.”

    Basílica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova di Monreale, Sicily (12th century) Jesus heals two blind men on the road to Jericho:

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