Marijuana has been trumpeted by some as a risk-free miracle drug but demonized by Trump’s attorney general as “only slightly less awful” than opioids and heroin. Of course, like most things in life, the truth falls somewhere in between. What is clear, however, is that medical marijuana may be one of the best weapons in America’s arsenal against the opioid crisis. Trump and company repeatedly expressed their sympathy and willingness to action in combating the crisis on the campaign trail; yet, now that he’s in office, his administration’s lackluster approach is simply a hypocritical affront to the very communities he pledged to help. Unless the Trump administration changes its course on medical marijuana, Americans will continue to die in a fruitless moral crusade against legitimate solutions.
America’s opioid crisis is no small issue. According to a surgeon general's report, 27 million Americans are users of illegal drugs or misuse prescription drugs. Furthermore, "78 die every day from opioids alone." 2015 was a particularly bad year, with over 33,000 deaths that involved an opioid and daily deaths jumping up to 91. While the areas most heavily impacted are rural, this crisis knows no borders, impacting every region of America. At home in South Carolina, 761 deaths were reported in 2015, or nearly as many people who died on state roads in the same year. According to CDC data, drug overdoses now kill more people than vehicles, with every race and age bracket heavily affected. This crisis isn’t getting any better. Only rapid and decisive action will save American lives.
The Trump administration’s plan is about as far from rapid and decisive as you can get. Instead of utilizing existing data and recommendations, the administration believes that a commission is the best way forward. This is, at best, a symbolic gesture. In the words of a former Obama administration official, "These people don’t need another damn commission. We know what we need to do. … It's not rocket science.” He’s right, we’ve had data and recommendations from some of the smartest medical minds in the country for years now. Worse yet, the commission will be run by Chris Christie, of Bridgegate fame, a man who staunchly opposes one of the best solutions to the problem, marijuana.
Medical marijuana has been a frequent topic of discussion in recent years, with 29 states having legalized it. In fact, an AP-NORC poll found that 61 percent of Americans support legalization in one form or another. And for good reason, recent studies have indicated that medical marijuana can help a plethora of conditions, ranging from epilepsy to glaucoma. Even more robust studies have found that medical marijuana can help patients deal with the nausea associated with chemotherapy and with chronic pain ailments.
Lessening chronic pain is the most promising application of medical marijuana, at least as far as the opioid crisis is concerned. The crisis has been driven by a massive increase in pain medication sales since the late 1990s, largely prescribed to help patients with pain. Drug manufacturers incentivized doctors to prescribe more pain medication, misled doctors on the potential for abuse of many of these medications and marketed opioids directly to consumers as a veritable cure-all for chronic pain. In the process, millions of Americans were given prescriptions to opioid pain relievers with high potential for abuse and little oversight. As a result, addiction and overdose deaths have spiked. Of particular concern is when patients gain tolerance to the opioids, when patients can no longer afford their prescriptions or when a patient’s prescription ends. In these cases, patients, still in pain or now addicted, will sometimes seek illegal sources for these pills, or even turn to heroin.
As far as chronic pain is concerned, medical marijuana has wide-reaching applications. One review on the benefits of marijuana looked through 10,000 studies done since 1999 and came to the conclusion that marijuana can, in fact, treat chronic pain. One study found that “states that had legalized medical marijuana prior to 2010 had a 25 percent lower rate of opioid mortality than those that didn’t.” Another study carried out by the University of Georgia found that, in states that have legalized medical marijuana, prescriptions for pain medication covered under Medicare Part D were 12 percent lower. If medical marijuana is, quite clearly, a valuable tool in the fight against the opioid crisis, why aren’t we using it more? The problem lies with draconian drug laws, scientific illiteracy, lobbying and ancient, out-of-touch politicians.
Two of the most influential players in the continued research on and expansion of medical marijuana are the attorney general and the secretary of health and human services. Unfortunately for anyone who cares about saving American lives, Trump appointed two staunchly anti-medical marijuana conservatives to this role, Jeff Sessions and Tom Price.
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is our current attorney general, and he’s hellbent on checking the growth of medical marijuana in the United States. Here are some choice quotes from Sessions: "Good people don't smoke marijuana" and the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Given that, one can assume that Sessions isn’t a fan of medical marijuana in any form.
Until now, medical and legal marijuana, in states that allow it, have been under little threat from the federal government. While the drug remained illegal at the federal level, the Obama administration refused to enforce this on states that passed laws allowing medical or legal marijuana. Sessions, on the other hand, has been hinting at a possible crackdown on marijuana by enforcing federal law on the states. This would kill an industry projected to grow larger than manufacturing, it would cut a large number of chronic pain patients off from their best chance at living pain and opioid-free lives and it would enrich Session’s private prison buddies. Private prisons, which rely on high numbers of prisoners to remain profitable, have a lot to gain from heavy-handed enforcement of federal marijuana laws. But Sessions and his zealously anti-drug beliefs are just one hurdle, the other comes from the secretary of health and human services.
Tom Price, former representative from Georgia, is the current secretary of health and human services after his appointment earlier this year. Price is very anti-marijuana, so much so that his voting record in Congress was rated a “D” by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Now that he’s in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, he and his backward views will be able to have a heavy influence over the various agencies overseen by HHS, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Drug Administration. His control could stifle what little research is done into the effects of medical marijuana is done by the CDC and NIH and could kill what little hope there was that the FDA could pressure the Drug Enforcement Agency into rescheduling marijuana.
Sessions and Price both seem to believe that marijuana really is the “devil’s lettuce” and not a tool public health desperately needs to save American lives. Despite all of the studies and medical opinions they have access to that indicate that new solutions like marijuana could save thousands of American lives, these scientifically illiterate, moralist zealots continue to fight an easy, cheap and profitable solution to America’s homegrown rot. The opioid crisis will not go away if we continue with our current course of action, that much is clear.
In the end, the failure to fully utilize marijuana for its public health benefits will fall on the man who nominated Sessions and Price. If Trump doesn’t formally shift the course of his underlings, then he will show his callous disregard for all of the anguished communities he promised to help during the election.