Opioid Addiction and Marijuana Legalization
Opioid addiction has become a major public health crisis in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 90 people die each day from opioid overdose. Almost 30% of patients who are prescribed opioids become addicted. The United States loses billions of dollars in productivity each year due to opioids.
Many people who become opioid dependent start down this path when doctors prescribe opiods like hydrocodone for legitimate purposes such as post-surgical pain. Others take the drugs for chronic painful conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches when no other medications work.
The nature of these medications leads to chemical and structural changes in the brain that cause habituation and addiction in significant numbers of patients. Opioid addiction is a disease that affects people unequally. Just as some people smoke cigarettes their entire lives and never get lung cancer, some people can take opioids and not become addicted.
But many are not so lucky.
So what does this have to do with marijuana legalization?
As a physician, I have many patients who would benefit from the use of marijuana for their medical conditions: Veterans and rape survivors with PTSD, cancer patients struggling with pain and nausea, seizure patients for whom traditional medications cause severe sedation and cognitive dysfunction. I am frustrated that I cannot provide adequate treatment for these patients when a known treatment does exist.
I often wonder how many people I could get off of opioids if marijuana and it's derivatives were available. How many American lives would be saved if we could legally substitute cannabinoids for opioids? How much suffering could we end with a science based approach to these issues?
Drug policy in the United States is stuck in the 80's mentality of "Just Say No", and ignores the latest research showing how antiquated these laws are. And this problem extends beyond just the addiction crisis of opioids.
We have laws that create a disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing with no scientific evidence to back them up. Non-violent drug users fill our prisons, while families are separated and jobs are lost, with no proof of benefit. Alcohol, which causes more health issues than marijuana, remains legal. Many of these policies lead to racial disparities in our criminal justice system, feed the for-profit prison system and perpetuate cycles of broken families and poverty.
Now we have a Health and Human Services Secretary who claimed that there is no treatment for opioid addiction, and an Attorney General who has ordered states to prosecute drug offenders to the greatest extent of the law, with no allowances for leniency.
It is incumbent upon those of us in the medical and scientific communities to speak up and speak out. We should be advocating for evidence-based drug policy, including marijuana legalization, correction of drug sentencing disparities, and intensified treatment for opioid addiction. And let's put people who are trained in science into the rooms where our drug laws are being made.