For decades, the nation’s drug warriors have argued that marijuana should be illegal because its use results in users eventually turning to more dangerous drugs like heroin.
This is the so-called “gateway” drug theory. It has always had a phony ring to it. Those of us who have favored marijuana legalization have long argued that the only thing about marijuana that might make it a gateway to the harder illegal drug world was its illegality — and that the way to close the gate was to make marijuana legal.
Now it turns out that the pot prohibitionists core contention was even more profoundly wrong than we thought.
It turns out that marijuana use does not lead to opioid addiction, as they contend, but that the opposite is true. There is a growing body of evidence that in states where medical marijuana is legal and available through dispensaries, fewer prescriptions are written for opioids like OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl — which have been implicated in tens of thousands of overdose deaths — and overdose fatalities in those states have dropped.
In the most recent study, researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health analyzed traffic fatality data from 1999-2013 for 18 U.S. states. They found that most states that passed medical marijuana laws saw an overall reduction in fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for opioids.
“We would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain,” said lead author June H. Kim, a doctoral student at Mailman, in a statement.
The study, published last week in the American Journal of Public Health, is among the first to look at the link between state medical marijuana laws and opioid use.
Medical marijuana laws, the authors concluded, are “associated with reductions in opioid positivity among 21- to 40-year-old fatally injured drivers and may reduce opioid use and overdose.”
According to a recent investigation conducted by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, sales of the drugs quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, rising in tandem with overdose deaths. “Last year, 227 million opioid prescriptions were doled out in the U.S., enough to hand a bottle of pills to nine out of every 10 American adults,” the AP investigators found. In 2014, more than 14,000 Americans died of overdoses associated with prescription opiods.
Dozens of studies have found that marijuana is effective for chronic pain management, which is what most opioid prescriptions are written for. And if pot is available, a substantial number of people turn to it for managing chronic pain instead of to opiods.
So perhaps it is not surprising that one of the companies that manufactures fentanyl is fighting the Arizona marijuana legalization initiative.
The company, Insys Therapeutics, donated $500,000 to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, the political committee that is opposing the Arizona initiative. The donation amounts to about one-third of the money the anti-legalization committee has raised so far.
The company is under investigation for fraud and kickback schemes to induce doctors to write off-label prescriptions for its version of fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphene and supposed to be used only for the treatment of pain by cancer patients.
Company spokespeople have the temerity to say it is donating to the anti-marijuana initiative because the initiative (Proposition 205) “fails to protect the safety of Arizona’s citizens, and particularly its children.”
Ah, yes. They’re doing it for the children.
Not that Insys has anything against cannabinoids, mind you. The company has developed a drug based on a synthetic form of it for pain control which it’s trying to get approved. It has admitted in one of its filings with regulatory agencies that it might not be profitable to bring the drug to market if it had to go up against natural pot.
Tom Angell, a spokesman for the pro-marijuana group Marijuana Majority, made the obvious point: “It’s difficult to understand how people who profit from selling a drug like fentanyl can keep a straight face while arguing that marijuana is just too dangerous to legalize.”