In order to combat the growing opioid epidemic in the United States, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research and consider “the use, uptake and effectiveness of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment in states where it is legal.”
This marks the latest in a series of requests that Warren and her colleagues have made to various US agencies asking for stronger efforts towards reducing prescription painkiller abuse.
In her letter, Warren asks the CDC’s director Dr. Thomas Friedan,
“to explore every opportunity and tool available to work with states and other federal agencies on ways to tackle the opioid epidemic and collect information about alternative pain relief options.”
Data supporting marijuana as an alternative to opioids is promising. A 2014 study cites a significant reduction in opioid overdoses in states with medical marijuana policies. Steps taken by the Obama Administration have eased slightly the barriers to cannabis research, but federal prohibition and DEA drug scheduling still criminalizes marijuana, putting states that have medical cannabis laws in a legal limbo.
The response to Warren’s calls for reform have been a rehashing of current policies, maintaining the federal government’s stance that marijuana is highly addictive, of no medicinal value and therefore a Schedule I substance. It is worth noting that methamphetamine is classified as a Schedule II substance, highlighting the inconsistencies behind the DEA’s drug classifications.
In the US, opioid abuse has skyrocketed over the last fifteen years. Drug overdoses have increased by 137 percent since 2000, according to the CDC. More than 47,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, compared to 33,000 from auto accidents. Although Americans account for 5 percent of the world’s population, they consume 75 percent of the world’s supply of prescription drugs.
In addition, sales of prescription opioids rose by 300 percent since 1999, indicating a major trend in physicians prescribing the drugs. The pharmaceutical industry has taken note, going so far as to manufacture drugs that combat the common side effects of long-term opioid use. Warren alluded to the escalation by requesting the CDC clarify their physician guidelines for treating pain.
The War on Drugs treated drug addiction as a criminal offense instead of a disease, resulting in overcrowded prisons and an annual $39.9 billion-dollar burden to taxpayers. This failure, coupled with the opioid epidemic, has caused a shift in attitudes towards substance abuse. Warren herself previously opposed cannabis legalization in 2011, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have reevaluated their positions amidst growing criticism of U.S. drug policy.
photo credit: elizabethwarren.com