Jeff Sessions' Marijuana Ruling Is 'Counterproductive' For Opioid Crisis

By Victoria Kim 01/11/18

The US Attorney General's anti-cannabis crusade could worsen the opioid crisis, mounting evidence suggests.

Jeff Sessions

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors, announcing the reversal of the Obama-era policy that put state-legal pot prosecutions on the federal government's back burner. Sessions called it “a return to the rule of law.”

The move has been met with plenty of resistance, and there are many reasons to oppose the direction that the attorney general is heading in. 

The 71-year-old former Alabama senator’s opinion of marijuana is best illustrated by this statement he made during a 2016 Senate hearing: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” 

But perhaps the most compelling argument against Sessions’ anti-marijuana crusade is the growing body of evidence that has linked cannabis to a reduction in opioid-related deaths.

In a Vice article published Tuesday (Jan. 9), former The Fix columnist and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, Maia Szalavitz, outlines the research done on the impact of marijuana legalization on opioid use.

“To understand just how counterproductive it would be to legally target weed right now, it’s worth looking closely at the growing body of data suggesting that pot may be preventing the opioid epidemic from being even deadlier,” Szalavitz wrote.

A 2014 study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, which used data from 1999-2010 from all 50 states, discovered a 25% reduction in opioid mortality in U.S. states that have a medical cannabis program. 

Another study from 2015, conducted by the Rand Corporation, found not only a decline in the rate of fatal opioid overdose (31%), but also a lower rate of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction (a 28% decline).

Having legal access to cannabis was also associated with a reduction in painkiller prescriptions. Analysis of Medicare data from 2010-2013, published in 2016 in Health Affairs, discovered that the number of prescriptions for traditional meds for a variety of ailments (that cannabis can treat)—anxiety, depression, glaucoma, pain, etc.—declined in that time period. The analysis also found over $165 million in Medicare savings in 2013.

“Given that study after study suggests marijuana availability is linked to lower overdose death rates, reduced use of opioids for chronic pain, and lower rates of opioid addiction, a stranger, more ill-advised policy is hard to imagine,” wrote Szalavitz. 

More than 11 studies have studied the effects of marijuana access on chronic pain, and ten of them “found strong positive associations,” said Szalavitz, “meaning that more marijuana availability was associated with less harm from opioids.”

States with legal marijuana, and the patients there, have already accepted marijuana’s role in pain relief. At least 16 states have listed chronic pain as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, according to FindLawmeaning that if you are living with intractable pain and live in one of these states (they include West Virginia and and Delaware) you may qualify for the state's medical marijuana program.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr