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Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he is “not a fan” of laws legalizing marijuana use and that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will be taking a look at marijuana policy. Recently, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer also said the DOJ may step up enforcement against states that have voted to legalize recreational marijuana, comparing it to the opioid crisis. While researchers do have questions about marijuana, most data shows it’s linked with far fewer risks than opioids. Marijuana doesn’t cause overdoses like opioid drugs, it’s not nearly as addictive, and doesn’t seem to be a “gateway” to opioid use.
Trump administration officials have problems with state laws legalizing access to marijuana.
On February 27, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was “not a fan” of laws legalizing recreational marijuana that voters have passed in a number of states, adding that “we don’t need to be legalizing marijuana. He also said that the DOJ plans to review its current policies, which don’t prioritize enforcing federal marijuana laws against businesses or groups that follow state laws on marijuana.
Several days prior, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer issued similar comments, implying that the DOJ might be considering a crackdown on recreational marijuana use in those states.
“[T]here’s a big difference between the medical use [of marijuana] … That’s very different from the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into,” Spicer said in response to a question on February 23.
Both Sessions and Spicer brought up the deadly opioid crisis in the US while explaining their policies.
Sessions called the idea that marijuana might make opiate abuse less of a problem a “desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits,” saying that he doubts that’s true – though he did note that “[m]aybe the science will prove I’m wrong.”
Spicer directly compared the opioid issue to marijuana use.
“I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people,” said Spicer. “There is still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”
The opioid crisis is a big deal – death rates from heroin and synthetic opioid painkillers continue to rise, according to a newly released CDC report. But comparing marijuana to the opioid addiction crisis doesn’t make sense from a scientific standpoint. And in fact, while Sessions might doubt it, there are a number of scientific reasons to think access to medical marijuana significantly reduces opioid overdose rates.
Plus, cannabis and opioids are vastly different in the first place.
Marijuana doesn’t kill people with overdoses, while opioids do; it’s not as addictive or harmful overall, according to public health researchers; and most research shows that it doesn’t act like a “gateway” to other drug use, no matter what we may have learned in school. Even though researchers do still have a lot of questions about marijuana they want answered, the opioid comparison doesn’t stand up, no matter how you look at it.
In many ways, the legalization of recreational marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington may offer a good deal of reassurance to many who are concerned about potential negative effects of legal weed.
“What we know right away is that the sky didn’t fall,” Amanda Reiman, a researcher and marijuana policy expert then-working with the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, told me in an interview on how legalization has worked out so far last fall. “We didn’t see huge upticks in traffic accidents or people using marijuana.” Data from those states supports what she says.
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What the science says about marijuana, public health, and opioids
Overdoses and addiction potential:
There’s a fair amount of research out there comparing the harms and risks of different sorts of drugs and by most of those measures, marijuana is fairly low risk. In one recent study where researchers compared the overall risk of fatal overdose from various drugs, marijuana was the only substance evaluated to fall into the “low risk” category.
Substances like amphetamines and diazepam (Valium) were medium risk; substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin were all high risk. In other research into how addictive drugs are, opioids and heroin are near the top of the chart, above alcohol and substances like benzodiazepines or ketamine. Marijuana (and psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin) were found to be far less addictive.
Effect on public health and opioid use:
While there are a number of factors behind the current opioid epidemic, one thing that many experts agree has played a role is the use of opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain. Using powerful drugs that have a high risk of causing overdose and high addiction potential is risky. Marijuana, which can also treat chronic pain – the most common reason people want to use it medically – is far less risky, scientists say.
As mentioned above, there are several studies that show that states that allow medical marijuana have fewer opioid deaths. This effect seems to stack over time, with states who pass these laws seeing a “20% lower rate of opioid deaths in the laws’ first year, 24% in the third, and 33% in the sixth,” according to Stat News. In general, it’s hard to say that deaths went down because of medical marijuana legalization and not other reasons; but in this case, researchers think that since the effect gets stronger the longer marijuana has been legalized, that implies that marijuana is a major cause of the decline in opioid deaths.
To be fair, the data we have so far associates that drop in overdoses with medical marijuana; there’s not enough data to say what effect recreational legalization will have. But we at least think marijuana is unlikely to worsen any existing opioid troubles. A recent review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that provides our most up-to-date comprehensive look at marijuana research found there wasn’t enough evidence to draw a link between cannabis use and opioid use.
The “gateway drug” effect:
If marijuana doesn’t seem to be linked to opioid use, is there anything to that “gateway drug” effect that many of us were taught about in middle school? Many experts don’t think so, and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) considers this idea controversial. As the NIDA notes, there is data indicating that people who have addiction problems later in life are more likely to have used marijuana as adolescents. But most research shows that most marijuana users don’t go on to use other substances. And those people who do develop addiction problems are also more likely to use other substances as kids.
“An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol,” NIDA’s website states.
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Are there any real risks?
None of this is to say that marijuana is absolutely and completely risk-free. Much of the data we have so far indicates that people who begin using cannabis regularly at a young age may suffer negative cognitive effects from that use in the long run (the same being true of young use of alcohol or any other substance), as one example. Some people struggle with marijuana dependency, too, even if it’s not as addictive as some other legal substances.
In other words, there are real risks, like with use of any pharmacological substance.
Researchers think we need to better understand those risks a states move forward with legalization, something that’s hard to do right now since that requires study and marijuana is particularly difficult to research. But prohibiting research and cracking down on states who have voted to legalize recreational use won’t make marijuana safer.
“One of the the big fallacies is that prohibition somehow gives us control of the product,” said Reiman. “One of the big fears is that we lose some sort of control [with legalization], and I think actually the opposite is true.”
It’s not that marijuana is a zero-risk substance. It’s just that from what we know so far, marijuana is far less likely to harm users than opioids or even other legal substances like alcohol, making it hard to see how a comparison to the opioid crisis is relevant.