On Thursday, January 4th, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions effectively ended the federal policy of non-interference with marijuana-friendly state laws. Needless to say, this is controversial for a lot of reasons, mainly because it’s a step back in the nation’s ongoing battle against opioid addiction.
An interesting nugget the Trump administration might want to take note of: states with medical cannabis laws, on average, experience 24.8 percent fewer opioid deaths (Journal of the American Medical Association)—which continue to decrease each year thereafter.
As we’ve highlighted in this publication, drug overdoses killed almost as many Americans in 2016 as did the entire Vietnam War—and the numbers continue to climb. As West Virginia state Senator Richard Ojeda recently explained to CNN, Sessions’ decision takes away one of the few effective tools we have for getting people off of opioids, off of heroin. How can an administration, he emphasized, which has rightfully (and famously) declared opioid addiction a national emergency, strip us of our ability to fight?
Ojeda pointed out that medical cannabis offers patients an alternative to addictive opioids. It helps combat withdrawal symptoms, and potentially gives addicts an alternative way to detox without the often-overwhelming drawbacks of dope-sickness.
Now, are we stupid? Of course not. Do the hardliners that say giving an addict another means by which to get high in order to battle the effects of a previous substance that gets them high have a point? Sure. Is marijuana a gateway drug? For some, I imagine. Do people abuse it? Yep. No one’s claiming to have the perfect formula—and as we’ve written in these pages many times before, it’s ultimately the responsibility of the addict to get clean, no matter what it takes—and even still, the labyrinth of addiction will reveal things to us all that we simply didn’t see coming or think possible.
That said, the current administration’s MO of not liking something—mostly for political/ideological reasons—and then either shutting it down or kicking it out … is foolish at best in this case, but could also prove catastrophic. This partisan decision quite possibly throws the baby out with the bathwater in regards to exploring ALL potential remedies to the national opioid epidemic.
Last year, Ojeda sponsored legislation in West Virginia to legalize medical cannabis—mainly with the hopes that it would help to combat the epidemic. Ojeda grew up in Logan County (WV), near Huntington, which has dubiously earned the “overdose capital of the U.S.” title. A town, Ojeda affirmed, where opioid- and heroin-related crime has spiked to such levels that the National Guard is now backing up local law enforcement efforts.
As a Democrat in a state where Republicans enjoy a super-majority, Ojeda and his colleagues were still able to get the bill passed and signed in April (2017). As he indicated on CNN: “This rare show of bipartisanship didn’t happen because we’re all singing Kumbaya and getting along. It happened because the devastation of addiction is so obvious where we live that my colleagues could not in good conscience deny our citizens a chance to escape this scourge.”
An Economic Driver
In a January piece for USA Today, Christian Schneider said that recreating black markets for weed only increases crime and puts more American lives in danger—noting that Sessions’ marijuana decision shows we learned nothing from Prohibition.
In what curiously feels like yet another effort to simply roll back an Obama-era policy without thinking of the work and thought that went into it—or the subsequent consequences—one doesn’t have to think back far to a day and a sound-bite where Trump said marijuana enforcement should be left to the states. Alas, Trump pivoted, and now believes federal law should be enforced, which bans marijuana sale and use.
But that pesky glitch often referred to as “public opinion” keeps popping up. In his piece, Schneider unveiled some noteworthy numbers: According to an October (2017) Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans currently believe marijuana should be legalized, up from only 48 percent as recently as 2012. And—wait for it—51 percent of Republicans now believe in legalization, up 9 percent over just last year.
Where Ojeda pointed to the massive consequences Sessions’ decision could have on the recovery community, Schneider pointed out that Sessions might want to look up from his desk and notice that cannabis has become a legit part of the economy—with plenty of room to grow—and Sessions seems either blind, indifferent, or both to that reality.
“Such a system leaves us where we are right now,” said Schneider, “with thousands of marijuana farms and weed enthusiasts in a state of legal limbo, not knowing whether they’re hardened criminals or productive taxpayers.”
Something to Consider: according to VS Strategies, a pro-legalization research company in Denver, Colorado has pulled in over $500 million since retail sales began in January 2014. That includes taxes and fees from medical marijuana, as well, which was legalized years earlier. Half a billion dollars in about five years—via one state.
Twenty-nine states (and D.C.) currently enjoy legal medical marijuana; eight states (and D.C.) boast legal recreational marijuana. For a White House allegedly supervised by one of the smartest financial minds in the world, this seems more than a little shortsighted.
The Decriminalized Mind
And then there’s the ever-emergent case of Portugal—which, if we’re paying attention, becomes harder and harder to unsee.
Since decriminalizing all drugs in 2001, Portugal has seen dramatic drops in HIV infection, drug-related crime, and, of course, overdoses.
Again—zooming out—we’re two different cultures, governments, societies, histories, situations, etc. But as we entertain as many potential solutions to the opioid crisis, this one deserves a look.
By the time the drug wave hit its apex in Portugal in the ‘80s, one in ten people were addicted to heroin. To put it in perspective, think about the same crisis in America right now, and we’ve just tipped the one million addicts mark—in a country of 300 million. Imagine if the U.S. had 30 million heroin addicts. Obviously, Portugal was in a panic.
The rate of HIV infection in the country quickly grew to the highest in the European Union. Zooming in, the authoritarian rule established by Antonio Salazar in 1933 weakened institutions, lowered the school-leaving age, and suppressed education—in an effort to keep the population submissive. Portugal was closed off from the outside world for forty years. But when the regime ended with a military coup in 1974, the country was suddenly, and unpreparedly, open for business … in the worst way(s) possible.
With little left to lose, in 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances.
Today, instead of facing arrest, someone caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a fine, or told to go before a local commission and discuss treatment options, harm reduction, and support services. Since 2001, the opioid crisis has not only stabilized, but dramatic decreases in overall drug use, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration, and HIV and hepatitis infections can’t be ignored.
However, the country is quick to emphasize that despite the fact that addiction numbers have held steady—notably through several changes in government (including conservatives who would prefer to return to the U.S. version of the war on drugs)—none of it could have happened without a massive and collective cultural shift … a comprehensive change in the way its society viewed drugs and addiction.
Indeed, the law was, as Susana Ferreira told The Guardian in 2017 “… merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies, and around kitchen tables across the country. The official policy of decriminalization made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing, etc.) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities.”
But it happened. It took many years to shape out, but the numbers don’t lie. And it’s surely something to think about as our own nation scrambles to resolve a named crisis that it otherwise can’t manage to define. One thing is for certain: calling it bad and telling it to go away probably only makes it worse.