Marijuana vs. opioids — One is illegal, the other is killing us
Today’s podcast explores the intersection of opiates and medical marijuana. Because like it or not, they’re both happening here in New Jersey and elsewhere in America.
I’ve always believed that maybe, just maybe, if we regulated prescription opiates half as zealously as we regulate medical cannabis, we’d avoid a world of hurt.
On one hand you've got heroin users, whose addiction usually begins in a doctor's office — they’re dying in record numbers. And on the other, sick people with cancer in New Jersey must jump through hoops to get the one thing that actually works for them: medical cannabis.
Eight states in America have legalized marijuana for adult use. Another 29 and DC already permit medical cannabis for sick people, including New Jersey, home of one of the most tightly regulated medical marijuana programs in America.
There are currently only give medical cannabis dispensaries serving all 9,000,000 people in New Jersey. The fees are high and rules are strict, presumably to dissuade anyone from gaming the system. No medical cannabis for “just a backache!” But you know what you can get for “just a backache?” A prescription for Vicodin.
"The United States represents about 5 percent of the population in the world ... and yet we use 99 percent of the world's opiates the world's Oxycodone. It’s ridiculous," Scott Rudder, president of the NJ Cannabusiness Association, told me. "The fact that number is that high says we're doing very little to offer alternatives to opioids.
We met Scott in Episode 4 of Heroin Uncut, "The Opioid Industrial Complex — This is who gets rich off your addiction." He’s back to help me sort out where cannabis fits into the whole heroin equation.
First, full disclosure: I smoke pot. I do it medically, because I’m HIV-positive — and I do it because sometimes because I want to smoke pot. I’m 45 years old. I don’t drink. I don’t like cigarettes. I haven’t had coffee in 20 years. But sometimes I like to smoke pot — and for me, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I also used cannabis to help me detox off the hard drugs I was abusing that nearly killed me. That was mostly meth, but plenty of crack and opiates too. That’s just my own anecdotal evidence. Researchers have already demonstrated that hospitalization rates for opiate addiction go down in states where cannabis is legal.
I’m not the only one who’s curious whether reforming our cannabis laws leads to declines in opiates use. Heck, maybe it’s just one big old coincidence that opioid use is down in states where cannabis legal, but I doubt it’s a coincidence. It turns out, the government’s curious like I am.
The National Institutes of Health is set to fund a first-of-its-kind long-term study examining how legalized medical marijuana might impact America’s addiction to opiates.
The five-year, $3.8 million grant was awarded to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx who’ll study whether medical marijuana reduces prescription-opioid use among adults in chronic pain.
“There is a lack of information about the impact of medical marijuana on opioid use in those with chronic pain,” Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, a physician at Einstein said in a statement. “We hope this study will fill in the gaps and provide doctors and patients with some much needed guidance.
“As state and federal governments grapple with the complex issues surrounding opioids and medical marijuana, we hope to provide evidence-based recommendations that will help shape responsible and effective healthcare practices and public policies."
So more research is coming. Finally. In meantime, I have a case to press. It’s very simple: America’s backward approach to all drugs, opiates, cannabis all of it, created the climate we’re living: Jails filled by petty marijuana crimes and an an opiate crisis that’s out of control that we don’t know what to do about.
Watch the video above or listen to this week's podcast for more on how we got here, and what we can do.
If you're using the app or New Jersey 101.5 site right now, you can listen with the widget below. You can always get the latest episodes from the app's menu or at HeroinUncut.com.
Revisit past episodes of Heroin Uncut below:
• Taking note on addiction — hard lessons learned by NJ journalists. Everyone's talking about the opioid crisis — because it's everywhere. But too few of those making the important decisions and trying to bring light to the problem really understand it.
• Carter Stone was a Jersey boy. And when he died of a heroin overdose at the age of 32, his grieving family was predictably distraught — like any other family in their position would be. But what’s different about this family is the message it left behind.
• The heroes and villains of New Jersey’s opioid crisis — New Jersey’s heroin crisis did not create itself. Big Pharma, greedy lobbyists, and dimwitted policy makers created the perfect conditions for addiction to take hold and to thrive.
• How Narcan, a great cop and a convicted killer saved my life — No conversation so far has stood out more than then one Jay had with Anthony — a recovering addict who recounted his experience being revived with Narcan.
• The Opioid Industrial Complex — This is who gets rich off your addiction
— Acknowledging that addiction is big business helps clear up what’s really driving New Jersey’s opioid crisis:
• Narcan is saving lives — and that’s bad news — Narcan is an important tool in our war against opiates. But our reliance on it means things have already gone too far:
• Needle exchanges — Why NJ must give drug users syringes right now — An uncomfortable solution? You bet. It’s also why host HIV-positive and drug-recovering host Jay Lassiter doesn’t have hepatitis today:
• Heroin Uncut: Defining New Jersey’s drug problem — Our language about drugs is a jumbled mess. If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t fix it:
New episodes are released every Saturday.
Heroin Uncut is sponsored by Carrier Clinic, providing behavioral healthcare services in New Jersey since 1910.