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Reversing the Opioid Crisis

America is facing an epidemic responsible for hundreds of deaths every day across the nation. From the West Coast to the East Coast, and millions of small towns in between, an overwhelming number of Americans are becoming heavily addicted to prescription pain killers. Pharmaceutical industries are constantly prescribing opioids like morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone to patients experiencing pain in many capacities. Opioids bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord, disrupting pain signals. (National Institute on Drug Abuse). Despite the pain relief, however, many fall into a cycle of substance abuse because of the highly addictive properties of the drug. As a result, demand for opioids are high, over-dose rates are higher, and the pharmaceutical industries’ profit is the highest it has ever been. With large populations of people fighting withdrawal symptoms with another dose, there has been a sickening increase in the number of prescriptions themselves. Opioid prescriptions made by doctors increased from 112 million in 1992, to a peak of 282 million in 2016. (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

Colorado, a state previously suffering greatly from the impacts of opioid abuse, decided to take action. Overdose deaths from just one kind of opioid painkiller outnumbered all homicides in Colorado in 2015. Lawmakers proposed the legalization of medicinal marijuana as a solution to their local crisis. Since the legalization laws were passed, opioid-related deaths decreased more than 6% in the following 2 years. This is the first drop the state had seen in opioid deaths in 14 years. (Ingraham). Given the success that some states have had in their efforts in fighting the opioid epidemic, it’s clear that a possible solution may be the legalization of medical marijuana.

Opioids are prescribed for a variety of pain symptoms. Whether it be for a teenager’s wisdom tooth surgery, or for an elderly man’s broken hip, these pain killers provide immense relief from short-term pain. They also cause strong feelings of euphoria, making the substance easy to abuse. In addition to the relaxing ‘high’, users also experience mentally and physically taxing withdrawal symptoms after stopping, making it almost impossible to come down easily. These symptoms include, but are not limited to: chills, sweats, vomiting, headaches, anxiety, and returning pains. While this is one main contributor to entering the cycle of opioid addiction, the problem worsens when opioid users must take increasingly larger doses for the same effect. A combination of these factors is blatantly accountable for the level of addictiveness in the drugs our doctors are prescribing. As a result, about 11.5 million Americans, aged 12 and older, misused prescription pain meds in 2016. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

A large contributor to this epidemic is the illegal and very popular street drug: heroin. In many of these cases, patients that ‘run out’ of pain killers, are denied access to them, or simply do not need medicated anymore, turn to an even more dangerous alternative. Heroin is very similar to prescription pain killers but is made illicitly. Because of the lack of regulation in heroin production, it is much more detrimental to your body. When people are going through opioid withdrawal symptoms, they are likely to try anything to feel the “high” provided by the drug. Heroin is cheap and accessible in all different types of cities and towns. Heroin dealers, in pursuit of more money, often cut their drug with additional substances, such as fentanyl. Because the differentiation is not apparent, users disregard the danger looking for their next high. As a result, thousands overdose and die.

As this crisis is clearly in a downward spiral, a solution must be implemented in some capacity to slow down, or even reverse the damage being done across the country. While we’ve claimed to be facing a ‘War on Drugs’, the real fuel to the fire is 100% legal. Even when comparing the lethality of street drugs, opioids prevail every time. During 2016, there were more than 63,000 overdose deaths in the United States. An overwhelming 66.4% of those deaths were opioid related. (National Center for Health Statistics). Yet, for whatever reason, these drugs remain legal, and continue to be distributed every day.

In search of an alternative that would help to decrease the severity of opioid-related deaths, lawmakers must examine the success of other states, and their efforts to reverse this crisis. Colorado is a prime example of successful progression, obtained by the legalization of medicinal marijuana. While some states are being progressive in legalization laws, several have already legalized marijuana entirely. To confirm the progress being made towards decreasing opioid mortality, a study by the Drug Policy Alliance showed that opiate-related deaths decreased by approximately 33% in 13 states in the following six years after medical marijuana was legalized. Politicians all over America repeatedly claim that we are living through an epidemic, yet many will take little action to be a part of the solution. Since cannabis is federally illegal, state government is challenged individually to take the initiative to change.

Seen as an extremely fitting alternative for opioid demand, cannabis is becoming more and more recognized and normalized as the epidemic progresses. This is an all-natural, versatilely medicinal, and easily accessible solution. Marijuana and opioids are both known for their pain-relieving effects. The difference is, though marijuana does not harm people, it is not federally legal. Opioids and cannabis have healing effects, as both block pain signals in the nervous system. (Drug Policy Alliance). They share the same benefit in that sense. However, not only does marijuana relieve physical pain, but it is known to also naturally treat: AIDS, asthma, PTSD, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, chronic pain, epilepsy, depression, anxiety, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, insomnia, and even cancer. (Loria). All these medical problems, treatable with a plant.

The issue with this, however, seems to be that pharmaceutical industries (also known as big pharma) will ultimately lose money as a result of the legalization of marijuana. After all, the demand for their opioids will decrease, as will the demand for medicines that treat the illnesses that marijuana helps naturally. Prescription drug spending fell by $165 million per year after the implementation of several state medical cannabis laws in 2013. (Drug Policy Alliance). With numbers like that from the passing of a few laws, one could only imagine the money pharmaceutical industries would lose from federal legalization. Because of this risk, big pharma lobbies in countless political offices across the country to do anything to prevent further legalization. A seemingly successful tactic they have used is instilling fear and criminal association with marijuana. Even though opioids take an average of 115 American lives every day, marijuana is consistently associated with negative stereotypes. (National Institute on Drug Abuse). Overdose and crippling addiction is inevitably normalized, while the negative ideas on cannabis continue to be portrayed. Without the repetition of misinformation, and the relentless efforts of big pharma, marijuana could reverse the opioid crisis in the United States.

More than 2 million Americans are dependent on or abuse prescription pain pills. (National Center for Health Statistics). If our nation took action on this issue and slowed the production and distribution of opioids by replacing them with cannabis, countless people would need rehabilitation and help with the transition from one drug to the other. Luckily, studies show that marijuana can reduce drug cravings and opioid withdrawal symptoms. Even if, for some reason, patients still needed opioids, medical cannabis can allow pain patients to take lower doses. (Drug Policy Alliance). Not only does cannabis have the capacity to relieve pain like opioids, but it can help to treat the withdraws caused by the opioids themselves.

Many arguments against marijuana include the phrase “gateway drug,” suggesting that smoking cannabis will ultimately make you progress to harder drugs. This debate is used frequently, and often tied into the opioid crisis. In turn, this breeds a negative connotation to marijuana, despite there being no real evidence to support that claim. Many may be surprised to know that 8 out of 10 people who started using heroin abused painkillers first. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Yet, the pre-conceived idea that marijuana is a danger continues to be taught. This is especially interesting, because out of all reports and charts from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not a single one shows one single marijuana-related death in their documented history.

We could be experiencing the beginning of a medical and economic revolution through marijuana. When and if prescription opioids are replaced with medical cannabis, money, cities, and lives will be saved by the dozen. The opioid epidemic can be challenged, reversed, and ended with the help of legalization.

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