Marijuana’s Role in Mitigating the Opioid Crisis
By: Heidi Urness, Attorney at Heidi Urness Law
Last Thursday, the White House announced it is launching a multimillion-dollar ad campaign intending to warn young people about the dangers of opioid abuse and curb opioid addiction. It is part of the anti-opioid initiative President Trump announced in March of this year, following his declaring the crisis a national health emergency last fall and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially labeling the problem an “epidemic.”
I. The White House’s Anti-Opiod Campaign
The campaign, so far, comprises four ads telling the true stories of people who go to extreme lengths to fund and feed their addictions to drugs like Oxycodone and Vicodin, including one intentionally breaking his hand, another his arm, another his back, and another intentionally wrecking her car. According to officials, teams tested more than 150 messages before selecting the most effective four ads with respect to decreasing intentions of misuse, increasing risk perceptions, are “shareable,” and make recipients want to learn more.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy partnered with nonprofits the Truth Initiative, the organization behind the prominent anti-tobacco campaign, and the Ad Council, most well-known for campaigns like Smokey the Bear and WWII’s “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” The space for the TV and digital ads is being donated by a variety of companies including Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, Google, NBC, and Vice. The ad space alone is valued at over $30 million “and then some,” according to President of the Ad Council Lisa Sherman.
The opioid crisis is a true epidemic in America, and it is growing. Over the past two decades, death from drug overdose has become the leading cause of injury death in the United States. In 2016, an average of 116 Americans died every day as a result of overdose involving a prescription or illicit opioid — not including deaths resulting from health complications from opiate use or lifestyle contributors. That number is higher than the number of deaths attributed to car accidents, guns, and breast cancer that same year, and is 21% higher than the number of fatalities the previous year.
“This is our first step in publicly engaging with youth,” White house counselor Kellyanne Conway said about the anti-opiod campaign. Conway has taken on a leadership role in the administration with respect to opioid issues, along with Melania Trump who has included opioid abuse education into her “Be Best” initiative announced in May, a platform aimed at addressing major issues facing children. “We hope these ads will spark conversation to educate teens and young adults to talk to their doctors about alternatives to opioids,” Conway said in a statement.
However, many critics argue there are far more effective and appropriate alternatives to mitigating the opioid crisis than putting the onus on young people (the first four ads released yesterday target 18-24 year olds; future ads will target individuals in the age range of 15-34 years old) to request alternative medications to those which their doctors recommend, including legalizing cannabis and allowing individuals 21 years old and older to avoid their first prescription for pain medication.
II. Medical Relationships Between Opiate Use and Marijuana
Many people end up abusing opioids, such as Oxycodone and Vicodin and even heroin, after first being exposed to the powerful drugs through a legitimate prescription intended to manage pain. Research published in April of this year confirms that individuals who avoid that first prescription are less likely to end up misusing opiates, and that substituting cannabis in place of such prescription is a less risky but highly effective option. Additional findings published in and by JAMA Internal Medicine, Columbia University, and the University of Kentucky College of Public Health also lend support to the argument that individuals today are willing, or even likely, to substitute marijuana for opioids and other prescription drugs. Indeed, prescription drug prices continue to climb, and Americans appear to be seeking an alternative to mainstream medicines that – as it relates to cannabis, in some states – are convenient, and even pleasant, to obtain and use.
As far back as 2014, researchers uncovered “about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” according to researcher and study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber. “The striking implication is that medical marijuana laws, when implemented, may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates of nonintentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths,” doctors Marie J. Hayes of the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health and Mark S. Brown conservatively commented alongside one of the studies.
III. Medicare, Marijuana, and Money
The benefits extend beyond the public health of American citizens. Legalizing cannabis makes financial sense: according to Health Affairs, a leading peer-reviewed journal reporting on health policy and reform, states that legalize medical marijuana enjoy declines in the number of Medicare prescriptions for drugs used to treat conditions like pain, anxiety, nausea, seizures, and depression, as well as dips in spending by Medicare Part D, which covers the cost of prescription medications. That is, in states where marijuana is used as a replacement for prescription drugs, researchers say it appears likely that legalization led to the drop in prescriptions and spending. They point to other medications for which marijuana is not an alternative, such as blood-thinners, which experienced no drop in prescriptions or spending over this same time period in the same states.
Specifically, Health Affairs reports that medical marijuana saved Medicare about $165 million in 2013 alone. If medical marijuana had been available across the country in 2013, they estimate Medicare Part D spending would have been approximately $470 million less in that single year.
In addition to the mitigation of the opioid crisis and Medicare cost savings, legalizing marijuana across the country would result in incredible federal tax revenues. A report from New Frontier Data, a cannabis-neutral policy and business analytic and reporting organization, titled Cannabis In the U.S. Economy: Jobs, Growth and Tax Revenue (2018 Edition) reports that if the White House were to implement a federal cannabis program, it would create more than 1 million jobs and generate an additional $75 billion in tax revenue. Insiders agree that “[w]e wouldn’t say that saving money is the reason to adopt this. But it should be part of the discussion,” as stated by W. David Bradford, professor of public policy and researcher at the University of Georgia.