As Gov. Charlie Baker works to protect the health and well-being of all Massachusetts residents amid this public health crisis, he should consider how the closure of adult-use cannabis businesses carries an unintended consequence for the many individuals who depend on this treatment option.

As a physician with years of experience researching medical cannabis, I have come to understand how patients interested in cannabis choose products from the adult-use market for many reasons. Even as the medical benefits of cannabis are widely known and accepted as treatment options, patients are often hesitant to discuss medical cannabis with physicians due to lingering stigmas and stereotypes. The extra hurdles and cost of obtaining a medical cannabis card, especially with the overwhelmed medical community amid COVID-19, presents an obstacle because adult-use stores are closed. It is unnecessary to deny access to care.

There are many documented medical benefits of cannabis. The National Academy of Medicine stated that chronic pain, nausea-induced by chemotherapy, and muscle spasms due to multiple sclerosis are indications. Many veterans are concerned about registering as medical cannabis patients to treat conditions such as PTSD because of its illegal federal status. Indeed, the Veterans Administration prevents its health professionals from even discussing the benefits of cannabis. Elderly patients and others may be simply embarrassed to raise the issue with their doctors.

As a result, patients who are curious about the medical benefits of cannabis may often choose to buy it directly from an illegal source without discussing it with their doctor. For these patients, closing adult-use cannabis businesses not only cuts off access to effective medical products that are safe, but it can also reinforce old stigmas as well as prevent an effective treatment.

The cannabis industry estimates that roughly two-thirds of Massachusetts residents who purchased cannabis from adult-use shops before the pandemic were using it to treat an illness.

Some individuals will turn to the illicit market to meet their needs. Others may be inclined to try — or return to — opioid-based painkillers. This is especially concerning, as opioids, unlike cannabis, are highly addictive and open the door to potentially lethal overdoses, which killed nearly 2000 Bay Staters in 2019.

Additionally, others who have relied on adult-use cannabis access to treat less-debilitating forms of pain, in replacement of over-the-counter pain relievers, risk dealing with potential injurious side effects. Faced with the sudden loss of a pain relief option, these patients may be forced to take medications that carry serious risks or can lead to negative interactions with other medications they may be taking.

As a physician, I feel it is my responsibility to help create a nonjudgmental environment for patients to get the medications they need. While it is encouraging to know that registered patients can still access their prescribed cannabis treatments through the medical program, we should not forget about those in the community who are unnecessarily denied.

Many patients will find other ways to access cannabis, or instead turn to ineffective or potentially dangerous and addictive treatment options. During this crisis, we cannot leave behind those who are in need of effective medicines. I urge Governor Baker to reverse course and reopen adult-use cannabis businesses so they can continue serving patients in Massachusetts amid this uncertain moment.

Richard Boxer, MD, FACS, is the chief medical officer of iAnthus, which owns, operates and partners with regulated cannabis operations across the United States. The company was approved this year to commence adult-use cultivation and processing at its Holliston facility and supplies retail cannabis in Massachusetts with its Mayflower branded flower, pre-rolls and concentrates.


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