Maine, like most of America, is struggling with how best to deal with a growing population of people addicted to opiates, at a time when resources to course-correct are being closed, slashed or cut altogether.

This week, our state’s top politicians did the right thing by passing L.D. 1537, An Act to Combat Drug Addiction through Enforcement, Prevention, Treatment and Recovery. The Maine House and Senate each passed the bill unanimously; Gov. LePage signed it into law less than an hour after the final vote.

We applaud this step to address the opiate crisis here in Maine.

L.D. 1537 effectively offers funding to add new drug enforcement agents, recovery options and resources across Maine. The Appropriations Committee funded this bill in large part by using fees generated by Maine’s medical marijuana program. We as an industry are proud to help create (and fund) the road to recovery for Mainers suffering from addiction.

As we know, Maine’s medical cannabis program is growing. The monies that helped legislators push past the bipartisan divide, bridge the funding gap and move L.D. 1537 forward were sourced in part from a $3 million reserve fund contributed by licensed dispensaries and registered caregivers over the last several years.

While we know this is a very helpful and immediate way for Maine’s medical cannabis industry to contribute to the solution, we also know there are other ways we can help tackle this problem, given the lessons our members have taught us over the years.

Every day, we hear patients recount their long and often bumpy roads to weaning themselves from the prescription opioids they’d become addicted to. We hear patients say how grateful they are to have cannabis in their medicine cabinet instead of oxycodone. Nearly every day we hear, “Thank you for helping me get my life back.”

In 2014, Wellness Connection of Maine conducted an in-house survey that revealed that 76.9 percent of 510 respondents found that they were able to reduce their usage of prescription medications after beginning cannabis therapy.

Mainers do not begin using prescription opioids with a plan to become addicted or to move on to cheaper heroin; they begin using them in order to treat pain.

Chronic pain is a qualifying condition for medical cannabis use in Maine, but state law defines this as “a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces intractable pain, which is pain that has not responded to ordinary medical or surgical measures for more than six months.”

And if you ask our many members, six months is long enough to develop quite a dependence on these powerful drugs. What if, instead of forcing patients to endure six months of treatment with a highly addictive, potentially lethal pharmaceutical drug, physicians were able to suggest that patients begin by trying a natural, whole-plant therapy?

Currently, opioid addiction is not a qualifying condition for the medical use of cannabis in Maine, but we should rethink this.

Multiple studies suggest that cannabis augments the analgesic effect of opioids, reducing the amount of opioids needed to relieve pain. And medical cannabis patients in Maine and elsewhere report successfully using the plant to assist in weaning off of prescription opioids and even methadone.

The successful enactment of L.D. 1537 is a step in the right direction, yet much remains to be done. Ten more drug agents will not be able to arrest us out of this problem; 10 more beds in a treatment center is a drop in the bucket when Scarborough’s excellent Operation HOPE has placed more than 100 Mainers in treatment centers in-state and in Florida since Oct. 1.

This crisis did not spring up overnight, and it must be battled on all fronts. But by contributing to a bipartisan first step, Maine’s medical cannabis community signals its willingness, and its capacity, to be part of the solution.

— Special to the Press Herald