The growing number of patients who claim marijuana helped them drop their painkiller habit has intrigued lawmakers and emboldened advocates, who are pushing for cannabis as a treatment for the abuse of opioids and illegal narcotics like heroin, as well as an alternative to painkillers. It’s a tempting sell in New England, hard-hit by the painkiller and heroin crisis, with a problem: There is very little research showing marijuana works as a treatment for the addiction. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found cannabis can be effective in treating chronic pain and other ailments. The research falls short of concluding marijuana helps wean people off opioids – Vicodin, Oxycontin and related painkillers – and heroin, and many medical professionals say it’s not enough for them to confidently prescribe it. In Maine, which is considering adding opioid and heroin addiction to the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana, Michelle Ham said marijuana helped her end a yearslong addiction to painkillers she took for a bad back and neck. A friend mentioned marijuana, which Maine had legalized in 1999 for chronic pain and scores of other medical conditions.

“Now, I actually organize volunteers, and we have a donations center to help the needy.” Bolstered by stories like Ham’s, doctors are experimenting with marijuana as an addiction treatment in Massachusetts and California.

Supporters in Maine are pushing for its inclusion in qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, and Vermonters are making the case for addiction treatment in their push to legalize pot.

“I don’t think it’s a cure for everybody,” said Maine Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat and a leader in the state effort to legalize marijuana.

“But why take a solution off the table when people are telling us and physicians are telling us that it’s working?” Most states with medical marijuana allow it for a list of qualifying conditions.

Getting on that list is crucial and has resulted in a tug of war in many states, including several in which veterans have been unsuccessful in getting post-traumatic stress disorder approved for marijuana treatment.

“But if you do too many things too fast, you are sometimes left with problems on the other end.” In New Hampshire, where drug deaths more than doubled last year from 2011 levels, the Senate last week rejected efforts to decriminalize marijuana.

There are some promising findings involving rats and one 2014 JAMA study showing that states with medical marijuana laws had nearly 25 percent fewer opioid-related overdose deaths than those without, but even a co-author on that study said it would be wrong to use the findings to make the case for cannabis as a treatment option. Cannabis could have limited benefits as a treatment alternative, said Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Kevin Hill, who last year authored the JAMA study that found benefits in using medical marijuana to treat chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity related to multiple sclerosis. Supporters point to doctors like Dr. Gary Witman, of Canna Care Docs, who has treated addicts with cannabis at his offices in Fall River, Stoughton, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

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