Cannabis, a plant that was long vilified as a dangerous and addictive drug by U.S. authorities, may end up playing an important role in reducing addiction rates and deaths related to prescription and illegal opioids. While medical marijuana has seen widespread acceptance and scientific vindication In the last few years for its safety, non-addictiveness, and many medical benefits, opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and Oxycodone have become a scourge across the US, leading some states to declare a state of emergency and the DEA to state that “overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels.”

How We Got Here

This crisis has largely been fueled by the pharmaceutical industry. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of opioid prescriptions rose by a staggering 300%, and new stronger opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil have become available. Along with this increase and normalization of opioid use in America, Mexican drug cartels have flooded the streets with heroin which is cheaper and in many cases easier to obtain than its prescription counterparts. With doctors over-prescribing opiate painkillers to patients, many unsuspecting people have found themselves locked into an addiction that they compulsively seek to manage, whether it be in the doctor’s office or on the street. Prescription opioids themselves are easy to overdose on, but for those who turn to heroin, which is increasingly laced with super-potent fentanyl, death by overdose is even more of a risk. In some cases, fentanyl is pressed into pills that look like milder prescription opiates, leading unsuspecting users to take something that is 50-100 times more potent than what they are expecting. As one U.S. official commented, these laced pills are “an overdose waiting to happen.”

How Medical Marijuana Can Help

Marijuana may seem like an unlikely ally to turn to in the face of this drug epidemic, but its role is multifaceted and well documented. Cannabis is itself an effective painkiller, and an infinitely safer alternative to opioids. Of course, there will always be instances where the strength of prescription opioids like morphine have their appropriate use, but many patients and doctors might choose medical marijuana over an opioid if it were a legal option. Thanks to the wave of medical marijuana legalization over the past decade and the subsequent analysis of its effects on health care, there is a lot of data to back up this claim. A 2016 study in The Journal of Pain showed that patients with chronic pain reduced their opioid use by over 60% after having access to medical cannabis, and a similar study in The Clinical Journal of Pain showed a 44% decrease. States where medical marijuana is legal also find that addiction rates, emergency room visits, and overdose deaths related to opioid use fall significantly. With this supporting data, the claim that medical marijuana can help the opioid epidemic is not just a hopeful fantasy; it is scientific fact.

Why This is Important Now

While many U.S. states have been pioneers in pushing for medical and recreational marijuana legalization, the Trump administration seems to have its head in the sand about the reality of the situation. Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis is chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who has called any form of marijuana legalization “total stupidity.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also been quoted as saying “I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana, so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another,” a perspective that is so out of touch with facts that it borders on either insanity or criminal stupidity. As ridiculous and disheartening as this is, there is also plenty to be hopeful about. Public support for medical marijuana is at an all-time high, and last week a bipartisan bill was reintroduced in the Senate by Republicans Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Lisa Murkowski and Democrats Al Franken, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand that would protect states allowing legal use of medical marijuana from interference by the federal government. Even former president Barack Obama has signaled his support for this bill, offering a very refreshing perspective that we hope all lawmakers and Trump appointees will take to heart: “Not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate… we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue.”