Monday’s big marijuana law reform news, that Maine officially ended cannabis prohibition, was countered by the announcement that law enforcement officers made the largest heroin bust in state history. Today’s events demonstrate the ebb and flow of drug policy work, as we fight to end the War on Drugs. Thankfully, we are making progress, slowly but surely, to end the harmful and racist Drug War.
Unfortunately, many states across our great nation are suffering from a widespread opioid abuse problem. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015, with about half the result of prescription drugs. One Maine resident dies every single day of an opioid overdose, as the state has set a grim record for drug abuse deaths.
While Reefer Madness propagandist prohibitionists try to link cannabis use to heroin, the truth of the matter is that prescription pain narcotics are the culprit of our nation’s heroin epidemic. As Vice explains:
In the 1990s, doctors were under enormous pressure to treat pain as a serious medical issue — with good reason, as roughly one-third of Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine. With encouragement from pharmaceutical companies, they prescribed excessive numbers of opioid painkillers — getting a lot of people hooked on the drugs, and letting excess painkillers flood the black market. Opioid painkiller overdoses steadily increased, reaching epidemic levels by the 2010s.
Over time, these opioid users developed a tolerance and sought a better high. They turned to heroin, which has long been cheaper, more potent, and — especially after the government crackdown on painkillers to fight addiction — more available than opioid painkillers. As a result, heroin deaths rose. (A 2015 analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who are addicted to prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.)
It’s that simple. Doctors sought to treat a medical problem and turned to a risky drug (the evidence on whether opioids can treat chronic pain is shaky at best), and it led to a lot of unintended consequences. Marijuana legalization wasn’t a major player — it doesn’t even fill a void in our knowledge about the causes of the opioid epidemic, because we already know what happened.
Marijuana legalization, if anything, helps us combat our nation’s opioid crisis. Recent studies have shown that legalized access to medical cannabis has decreased opioid use and overdose deaths. There is a growing body of evidence that access to cannabis can be an “exit strategy” that helps people quit using more deadly and addictive drugs. If Maine’s state government can efficiently and effectively follow the will of Maine voters, and provide safe, regulated access to marijuana to state residents, they may be able to curtail the growing heroin and opioid epidemic.
There are many reasons to support ending cannabis prohibition. Legalizing marijuana leads to a better prioritization of law enforcement resources and it saves judicial costs. The establishment of cannabis commerce creates new jobs and generates millions of dollars in new revenue. An added benefit to marijuana legalization, in Maine and elsewhere, may just be fewer heroin and opioid deaths.