Date of Degree
Doctor of Public Health (DPH)
Health Policy and Management
Medical Cannabis, Opiods
Background: In July 2014, New York State became the 23rd state to legalize marijuana (“cannabis”) for medical consumption under the New York State Medical Marijuana Program (“Program”). Three years later, during his Executive budget address, the NYS Governor, Honorable Cuomo, directed the Department of Health in consultation with other NYS agencies, to evaluate the experience, consequences and effects of legalized marijuana in neighboring states and territories, and to review the health, criminal justice and economic impacts of regulating marijuana use. That report concluded that the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market outweighed the potential negative impacts.
Objective: This dissertation has three aims. First, to study emerging trends in the experiences of a convenience sample of 12 stakeholders accessing and utilizing the New York States’ Program.
Second, to study the cost-effectiveness of medical cannabis in combination with the opioid pharmacotherapy compared to the standard of care employing opioids alone from a healthcare perspective with a time horizon of one year, in 2017 US$, with quality adjusted life years gained as the primary outcome.
Third, to study the lived experiences of a cohort of 20 subjects with cancer-related neuropathic pain who are generally being managed on opioid pharmacotherapy for cancer-related pain in whom medical cannabis has been added to improve analgesia and diminish opioid requirements.
Methods: Approval was given by the City University School of Public Health, Human Research Protection Program for research designs to address the three study objectives.
The first study was designed as a qualitative cross-sectional study of stakeholders of Vireo Health dispensaries in downstate New York that comprised entrepreneurs, physician providers, pharmacists, and client stakeholders. In-depth, semi-structured phone interviews were conducted following a topical guide instrument with major domains of stakeholders’ personal views, community norms, attitudes, and behaviors, prescribing practices, knowledge of drug cost, insurance coverage, and financial subsidies, pharmacy and dispensing processes. Primary data was analyzed on Dedoose® with the compilation of a codebook and coding of transcripts to yield emergent themes that were in turn triangulated.
The second study was designed as a cost-effectiveness analysis using a decision tree in TreeAge Pro to simulate the cost and clinical outcomes of adding medical cannabis treatment for chronic sickle cell disease pain compared to the standard of care using opioid analgesic medication alone. Probabilities, costs, and quality of life utility weights associated with opioid use and chronic pain among patients treated with medical cannabis versus standard of care were derived from published literature. Primary outcomes included medication costs and health-related quality of life (measured in adjusted life years, QALYs). The analysis was carried out from a healthcare sector perspective with a time horizon of one year. Medication costs associated with chronic pain treatment involving cannabis and opioids expressed in 2017 US$. Incremental cost-effectiveness ratios were calculated by comparing cannabis-assisted treatment with opioid-only standard of care. One-way sensitivity analyses and threshold analyses were performed to assess parameter uncertainty.
The third study was designed as a qualitative cohort study of the lived experiences of a convenience sample of subjects who met the eligibility criteria of age 21 or older, English speaking, under the care of a pain management health provider, not pregnant or breast-feeding, and the diagnosis of cancer-related neuropathic pain. Study subjects were all served by a single upstate Vireo Health dispensary to add medical cannabis to a standard of care regimen to improve analgesia and reduce the need for opioids. The subjects underwent semi-structured in-depth phone interviews using a topic guide covering domains related to experiences of cancer and treatment, experiences and perceptions of pain management strategies, and impacts on quality of life. Thematic analysis was conducted with coding by hand using Microsoft Word. Coded excerpts were copied into a themes matrix in Excel where emerging trends were critically analyzed according to the study aims.
Results: Chapter 2 studied 12 stakeholders of the New York State Medical Marijuana Program and revealed emergent themes centered on facilitators and barriers for the acceptance, accessibility and use of medical marijuana in New York. Facilitators included effectiveness and safety, while barriers included stigma, process, and cost. The effectiveness of medical marijuana as a medication for various conditions and was highlighted as a major facilitator for its legalization, acceptance, and use). Additionally, participants noted the demonstrated safety of marijuana as a medication, which has shown to be much safer than other legal drugs, and its use in helping patients come off opioids. Stigma surrounding marijuana was identified as a barrier with participants highlighting misperceptions or personal stigmas as a prohibitive to legalization, acceptance, and use. There was frank criticism of NYS’ program by stakeholders evident in other themes emerging around the processes involved in accessing and using the NYS Program. Entrepreneurs were critical of the excessively bureaucratic process of the application and registration process for opening dispensaries; and physicians were wary of the Program’s educational bureaucratic program to become certified providers; and clients cited difficulty in finding providers, assembling documentation, registering on the Program website, waiting for the certification card, arranging a pharmacist consultation at the dispensary, and among those perceived stigmas of cannabis. Additionally, the cost of medical cannabis was voiced as excessive by patients.
Chapter 3 study of the cost-effectiveness of adding medical cannabis treatment for chronic sickle cell disease pain compared to the standard of care using opioid analgesic medication alone found that cannabis-assisted treatment is estimated to reduce addiction by 11.5% among SCD patients previously addicted to opioids and improve chronic pain control from 56% to 76%. On average, cannabis-assisted treatment increased monthly pain management medication costs by $1781.21 per person compared to opioid analgesic treatment alone ($6037.61 vs. $4,256.40) and produced 0.06 more QALYs per person (0.58 vs. 0.52 QALYs). The resulting incremental cost-effectiveness ratio was $27,219.78/QALY gained. Based on a commonly used $100,000/QALY willingness-to-pay threshold, cannabis-assisted treatment was very cost-effective compared to the opioid-only strategy. Sensitivity analyses suggested that these results were robust against a wide range of parameter values.
Chapter 4 studied the use of medical cannabis in the management of cancer-related pain from a single dispensary experience in upstate New York among 8 men and 12 woman with a mean age 59.5 years with cancer-related neuropathic pain associated with lymphoproliferative tumors, malignant cancer of the breast, lung, ovary, prostate, gallbladder, and skin. The majority of subjects (80%) were taking opioid pharmacotherapy to treat severe neuropathic pain scored by PEG and VAS (in 7 subjects) respectively 5.7/10 and 4.25/5 consistent with severe neuropathic pain before adding oral (7 subjects), sublingual (2 subjects), or inhaled cannabis products (4 subjects), or in combination (7 subjects). The employment status was known in 18 subjects, 14 of whom were not working due to disease disability (8 subjects) or retirement (6 subjects) while 4 others were working full-time (3 subjects) or part-time (1 subject). Emergent themes related to the experiences of cancer and its treatment, perceptions and experiences of pain management strategies, perceived benefits of medical cannabis, enablers of improved pain management, and barriers to pain management. There was variability between and within individual’s experiences of cancer pain and management strategies. Subjects often reported that opioid-based medications fell short of providing sufficient pain control, were associated with severe or debilitating side effects, or a mixture of the two. Cannabis-based medication provided a socially accepted, safe and well-tolerated alternative to opioids in this cohort. The foremost challenge of the cohort was in formulating their own strategy of pain management, combining available multimodality aspects. Reported enablers for this included the availability of knowledge around cannabis-based medication and their uses, as well as, moral, logistical, and financial support structures. Major barriers to cannabis-based medication highlighted challenges resulting from its yet full integration into the nation and state’s health systems that instilled inconsistencies in guidance, access, and financial costs.
Discussion: New York State’s Program vertically integrates legislative and public health policy of the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in NYS that favorably influences the optimal functioning of dispensaries, and outweighs its potential negative impacts to society, communities, or individuals. However, there are significant barriers to stakeholders including entrepreneurs, prescribing physicians and patients, even when they conform to state-mandated program policies. This applies to dispensary ownership, provider and patient certification, and accessing cannabis. There is stigmatization related to the acceptability of medical cannabis even in the diseases for which it may be approved and deemed cost-effective, compared to the standard of care therapies.
Conclusion: The present dissertation compiles qualitative and quantitative public health research based upon New York State’s Medical Marijuana Program. Viewed through the lens of public health and a socioecological framework model, medical cannabis policy in New York State should be framed, emphasizing it as an alternative to opioid pharmacotherapy in serious disorders such as cancer- and sickle cell disease-related neuropathic pain, in which there is favorable cost-effectiveness. Local communities and dispensaries can help frame acceptance according to the principles of social reconstruction that highlight the interdependence of social, environmental and individual biological determinants. At the societal level, there must be support for cannabis in the struggle against the widening opioid crisis.
Younger, David Steven, "Medical Cannabis in New York State" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.