Is the increasing legal marijuana market in many states affecting illegal drug use? Read how legal marijuana is affecting the opioid crisis. Over the past two decades, the United States has seen a sharp rise in opioid-related deaths. A trend dubbed, the opioid crisis, is leaving law enforcement officials, politicians, insurance companies and other medical professionals searching for answers. That’s because opioids, a drug classification once intended to help people manage pain, is causing massive increases in addiction and death.
Some researchers believe that marijuana offers hope as a possible solution to the rise in opioid-related deaths. But what are the implications for long-term impact in the United States? Forecasts show death tolls as high as 50,000 people a year who die from opioid addiction. Something has to be done, there is no time to spare.
It’s not the first time in our country’s history we’ve discovered we rely on bad medicine. In fact, the United States has a long history that includes legal, recreational cocaine use. Yet each time we go through this learning cycle we are as clueless as the next.
Lawmakers have become overly cautious about what to restrict. And in the aftermath of our mistakes, in a lab somewhere, we developed opioids for medicinal use. Thus began the opioid crisis. Opioids are a classification of drug that interacts with human opioid receptors in the brain. This induces a natural pain-relief effect that is temporarily amplified by really good feelings. The drug works similarly to morphine. But opioids are nothing new.
They have a long history of use, in the United States and across the world. In fact, opioid compounds have been used recreationally for as long as recorded time. Opium, derived from the poppy flower, is mentioned being used as far back as the Sumerians of 3,400 B.C.
In the United States, recreational opioid-use is illegal. In the 1990s, the most common opioid street drug was heroin. Today increases in “doctor shopping” behavior as well as a corrupt medical institution have given rise to new addicts with a penchant for opioid-use. The result is a spike in addiction-related deaths and overdoses, called the opioid crisis, or opioid epidemic. The latter reminds people that addiction is a disease. Currently, it’s a disease that is hitting hard the Appalachia region, Midwest and Northern United States.
The last thing that lawmakers want to do is release marijuana to a large group of addicts. Politicians have staked their careers on “proving” that marijuana is just as dangerous as heroin. There’s no clearer demonstration of this philosophy than the legal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Other Schedule I substances include heroin and methamphetamine.
Drugs like OxyContin are considered Schedule II, a lower classification which indicates to the public they are less dangerous because they have some medicinal value. The question of whether marijuana has medicinal value is no longer even debatable. More than half of the United States have implemented some form of legal marijuana, be it restricted to medicinal or accessible for recreation. This strange government classification of marijuana, based on propaganda from the 1930s, puts states at odds with the Fed for their rights.
There’s no question about the danger of opioid use. It’s suggested that 90 people a day die from opioid-related deaths. When it comes to deaths from marijuana, you’d be hard-pressed to find one. That’s because someone would have to consume 20,000 – 40,000 joints worth of THC in order to get a lethal dose. Still, the government considers marijuana a drug that can foster dependency; a gateway drug that launches our friends and neighbors into frenzied addiction.
If anything is a gateway into the use of serious drugs like heroin, it’s prescription opioids. Here’s why. The government can’t argue with 10 years of data on the opioid crisis. Those who use prescription drugs are 19 times more likely to use heroin. No such numbers exist for marijuana use. What we do find in states that have legalized marijuana is a reversal in opioid use for the first time in almost two decades. Today, 2 years after passing recreational marijuana legislation, Colorado has seen a 6% decline in opioid-deaths. Across the board, the 29 states with legal weed are seeing a decline in opioid-related hospitalizations. When consumers get to choose, they choose marijuana over traditional painkillers.
Drug makers know this. The good news is they are already working on marijuana-based painkiller pills to replace opioids in the future. While no FDA-approved marijuana painkiller exists on the market today, drug makers have high hopes.
Ready for bad news?
Getting a product approved by the FDA while marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug at the federal level will be the main challenge faced by this group. FDA approval is important as it means necessary steps have been taken to make sure the drug is safe for public consumption. Safety concerns, like dosage, are considered in clinical trials leading up to a release. But even without a “magic marijuana pill”, states with medicinal marijuana laws are reaping the benefit of an overall reduction in the opioid crisis.
Without FDA involvement, patients often smoke marijuana. In addition to smoking the buds of the plant, several products exist to be sold in dispensaries around the U.S.:
The above methods are considered to be healthier alternatives to smoking. These different applications may be preferred depending on the ailment you are treating. But currently, without an FDA approved application of marijuana, smoking seems to provide the quickest direct effect for those suffering from pain.
While studying the impact marijuana has had on Colorado, researchers now believe that full, unrestricted access to legal, recreational marijuana is the vehicle to drive the reduction of the opioid crisis.
Legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado has upended the crisis on two fronts:
Critics of the study would argue that it’s too hard to assign cause and effect to things that may affect change. But researchers insist they have done just that, accounting for programs to reduce dependency in the wake of the opioid crisis. Once again the DEA’s Schedule I classification will make furthering the idea to legalize weed across the board very difficult to implement. The federal government says marijuana is a controlled substance which has given them free reign to intimidate or raid dispensary facilities, as deemed necessary until they shut down. In February 2017, the House of Representatives brought forward legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana, H.R. 1227. Some version of this bill has been kicked around Congress since 2011 when it was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank.
The law itself seeks to end prohibition, subject marijuana to regulation in the same way we do alcohol and transfer authority to prosecute against violations of said regulations to Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) from the DEA.
Since Frank’s original proposal in 2011, it has been re-introduced three more times:
Today, the bill has been passed from committee to committee without resolution, further impeding developments in reducing the opioid crisis.
Today, the opioid crisis is alive and well. It’s affecting the lives of your friend, family, co-workers, and neighbors. But why? Could a power struggle between the Federal government and states over the right to save their constituents be a roadblock to change? There is research that suggests marijuana could be a major player in reversing the opioid crisis. That needs to be examined. The United States has learned over and over again that rushing into major innovations in modern medicine has sometimes had negative consequences.
We need to proceed with caution. But that’s why the FDA, DEA, and researchers must be on the same page. Reducing the number of opioid-related deaths in the United States needs to be a priority for everyone. Ending the opioid, crisis once and for all, would save the lives of more than a 500,000 people over a decade.