Increasingly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threatening stance toward states with legal marijuana laws may hinder America’s ability to solve its real drug problem: the opioid crisis.
The Trump administration’s revival of the failed war on drugs did not spring from a place of reason.
But increasingly, it looks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ veiled threats toward states with legal marijuana laws might actually hinder America’s ability to solve the nation’s real drug problem: The opioid crisis.
Two new studies suggest that when medical marijuana is legally and easily available, patients may be more likely to turn to pot instead of highly addictive opioids to treat their pain.
One of the studies found that in states with medical cannabis dispensaries, there was a 14 percent reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions among Medicare patients, who are typically 65 or older.
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The other study examined Medicaid data and found similar results, suggesting that loosening marijuana laws may lower the use of prescription opioids among this primarily low-income population. The researchers found that states that legalized medical pot had roughly a 6 percent lower rate of prescribing opioids compared to states that outlawed marijuana.
Legalizing cannabis is not enough to solve our nation’s opioid epidemic on its own, as the authors of these studies made clear.
Yet their research provides further evidence that the federal government’s reversion to a no-tolerance approach when it comes to policing marijuana is misguided, and may even be pushing patients toward more addictive and deadly painkillers.
Both of the studies — published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association — incorporated Washington state data. The state-by-state breakdown in the Medicaid study showed that Washington reported a 5-percent lower rate of opioid prescriptions compared to states that ban marijuana, similar to the reduction noted in other legal marijuana states.
The more discovered about marijuana and its benefits, the more backward the current administration’s policies seem. Contrary to Sessions’ assertions, legalizing marijuana also seems to help reduce crime, not increase it.
At the same time, the holes in the existing body of research into marijuana and its applications show why the federal government needs to relax its strict rules on medical studies involving the drug. For doctors to harness the full potential of cannabis to treat chronic pain, more research must be done to track individual patients’ experiences using it, not just looking at aggregated data.
At a minimum, Sessions and the Department of Justice should reinstate the hands-off enforcement policy adopted under President Obama, allowing states to run well-regulated systems of legalized marijuana without interference from the federal government.
Even better, the federal government should finally legalize the drug nationwide, ending its classification as a Schedule I drug that is on the same level as heroin. This is warranted given the drug’s lower risk of causing addiction and its lack of connection to deadly overdoses.
More than half of states have already recognized the wisdom of this approach by legalizing medical marijuana. Since 2012, an additional seven states and Washington, D.C., have joined Washington state and Colorado in legalizing the drug for recreational use among adults.
On this issue, facts and public sentiment are not on Sessions’ side. A Pew Research Center survey published in January found that 61 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana.
When it comes to thoughtful drug policies, states such as Washington are the ones pushing our country forward.
Given the role that marijuana could play as an alternative to opioids for treating pain, the federal government should drop its outdated objections to cannabis and start following the states’ lead.