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December 9, 2016

As opioid deaths officially surpass gun homicides, will national leaders continue to ignore potential live-saving benefits of medical marijuana?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post Wonkblog piece, which starts by noting that "opioid deaths continued to surge in 2015, surpassing 30,000 for the first time in recent history, according to CDC data released Thursday." Here is more of the grim data:

That marks an increase of nearly 5,000 deaths from 2014. Deaths involving powerful synthetic opiates, like fentanyl, rose by nearly 75 percent from 2014 to 2015. Heroin deaths spiked too, rising by more than 2,000 cases. For the first time since at least the late 1990s, there were more deaths due to heroin than to traditional opioid painkillers, like hydrocodone and oxycodone....

In a grim milestone, more people died from heroin-related causes than from gun homicides in 2015. As recently as 2007, gun homicides outnumbered heroin deaths by more than 5 to 1. These increases come amid a year-over-year increase in mortality across the board, resulting in the first decline in American life expectancy since 1993.

Congress recently passed a spending bill containing $1 billion to combat the opioid epidemic, including money for addiction treatment and prevention. "The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the country — in large part because too many people still do not get effective substance use disorder treatment,” said Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, in a statement. "That is why the President has called since February for $1 billion in new funding to expand access to treatment."

Much of the current opioid predicament stems from the explosion of prescription painkiller use in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Widespread painkiller use led to many Americans developing dependencies on the drugs.  When various authorities at the state and federal levels began issuing tighter restrictions on painkillers in the late 2000s, much of that demand shifted over to the illicit market, feeding the heroin boom of the past several years.

Drug policy reformers say the criminalization of illicit and off-label drug use is a barrier to reversing the growing epidemic. “Criminalization drives people to the margins and dissuades them from getting help,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others.”

These depressing data spotlight one of many reasons I am supportive of medical marijuana reforms for the treatment of pain. It is functionally impossible to die from an overdose of marijuana, and thus it will always be in some important ways safer for someone to become dependent on marijuana rather than on opioids for pain relief. In addition, as highlighted in a number of posts from my other blog, there is considerable research emerging from various sources that the opioid epidemic is somewhat less deadly in states that have robust medical marijuana programs.

Some related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

December 9, 2016 at 08:33 AM | Permalink


Opiate overdose deaths and homicides may be happening in the same population of criminals. If this is true, opiate deaths may be a stealthy form of death penalty, without the outrageous cost of lawyer procedure. It may have to be added to the multiple factors converging to reduce the crime and murder rates. The prevention of opiate deaths, by the use of Narcan by the police, for example, may result in an increase in the murder rate.

Lawyers are concerned that if enough criminals die by opiate overdose, they will have more lawyer unemployment than they already do from the dropping crime rate. I predict that the lawyer will have the newly approved Narcan nasal spray issued for free to all addicts, to prevent their demises. For free, means, at tax payer expense, of course.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 9, 2016 9:49:01 AM

I agree that the "over-criminalization" of marijuana and the negative stigma often makes it hard for people to seek out help. But, i am optimistic that several police precincts such as Gloucester police department in Massachusetts have said that they will not arrest nor charge anyone who walks in their station, but will instead get them into a rehab program. This strategy has proven to be successful in getting hundreds of abusers of the drug who would otherwise be either in prison or dead. I think we need to pressure our elected leaders to champion these sorts of efforts.

Posted by: Ismail | Dec 14, 2016 9:29:01 PM

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