Cannabis - labelled for decades as a "gateway drug" - is now being looked at as a potential exit strategy from life-threatening opiate addiction.

Earlier this week, state health regulators in Maine heard testimony from medical marijuana caregivers, who believe cannabis could be the key to helping people stay off opioids and cope with withdrawal symptoms.

Adding heroin and prescription opiate addiction to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana would be a first in the United States: since Maine voters approved the use of medical marijuana 2009, only about dozen conditions, including seizure disorders, cancer, and AIDS, allow patients to qualify for the program.

Death rates are lower with marijuana treatments

The hearing, in which former opiate addicts testified to the role cannabis played in their recovery, was held in response to a petition launched by medical marijuana caregiver Dawson Julia. Researchers have found that death rates due to opiate overdoses are 25 percent lower in states with medical marijuana laws.

A small study recently showed a synergy between how cannabinoids and opioids work - meaning some patients may be able to manage their pain with a smaller dose of opioids if they also consume cannabis. And unlike opioids, which are frequently lethal in large doses, cannabis has no risk of overdose fatality, and fewer side effects.

The growing epidemic of Fentanyl abuse, and over-prescription of other opiate pain relievers, has resulted in an increased number of overdose deaths in Maine. In 2014, 350,000 Mainers were prescribed opioid medication, according to the Portland Press-Herald, and drug overdoses spiked in 2015 to claim the lives of 272 Mainers, a spike of from 208 in 2014.

But given that the DEA still considers marijuana a dangerous drug, the use of which should be eradicated, the value of the early trials that only used 24 volunteers is being called into question by some anti-marijuana lobbyists, who say prescribing cannabis could actually fuel to the fires of addiction, rather than helping people kick the habit.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has 180 days to approve or deny the petition: written submissions will be accepted until May 3.