There’s a saying in sobriety circles about why people get addicted to substances: They work. If drugs and alcohol didn’t make you feel better, be more productive, or make you think that you look/talk/behave/sing/dance better than you do, then people wouldn’t be lining up to abuse them. The issue, of course, is that drugs and alcohol are a slippery slope — take too much, and your body becomes addicted. What once worked can quickly become an albatross.
As far as substances go, marijuana is the least addictive and least dangerous drug to ingest, certainly far less dangerous than alcohol which is — as we all know — legal in all 50 states. (I know this from experience.) It’s also true that marijuana has legit therapeutic benefits, which isn’t a claim booze can make. Why, then, does use in America range from illegal to severely controlled? Shouldn’t it be legalized across the board?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. (Though across-the-board legalization is exactly what Canada is trying to do.)
Instead of the “why,” we should be focusing on the “what,” as in, “What good can marijuana use bring?”
I’ll refrain from delving into all the reasons why marijuana can be beneficial for those that smoke it — that’s outside the scope of what I’m going for here. But, as a recovering addict, I know one thing: Where there’s one drug dealer, there are drugs.
Notice the plural form.
I’ve never met a drug dealer, even if he’s just selling weed, that didn’t have access to harder substances whether it’s via a third party or his own stash. Buying marijuana illegally can open up a rabbit hole into a dark realm of opiates, hallucinogens, and other drugs that hold grave consequences. Translation: Maybe it’s not weed that’s the dangerous gateway to harder drugs, but rather the weed dealers.
If alcohol was legalized in order to help combat the crime surrounding bootlegging, shouldn’t marijuana be legalized to help combat the access to more dangerous substances? So far, that hasn’t been a reason favored by lawmakers and politicians.
“At a time when we are trying and working so desperately hard to get help to those who need it, telling young people to not do drugs, trying to eliminate some of the barriers to treatment and to promote recovery, this effort at legalization seems to be directly at odds with those efforts,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey told the New York Times.
An opioid crisis is slicing a path through America right now, where prescription-pill abuse is leading to heroin abuse; heroin is cheaper and more potent, but also more dangerous. Healey, by suggesting that legalization for marijuana would be akin to promoting drug usage across the board, is missing the bigger picture.
“There are a few different components that fit into [going from prescription pills to heroin] — the biggest that people highlight is financial,” a drug and alcohol counselor, whose employer asked that he remain anonymous, explained to Uproxx. “They can get an amount of the substance at a different price than what they were primarily using. That, and availability — there’s known places that people know they can go at any time to find it at any and all times. And really, once you cross the rubicon and use the heroin, it seems to be off to the races.”
Pennsylvania sees the benefits of pot in combating the opioid crisis: This past Sunday, the state legalized the use of medical marijuana for 17 various conditions, one of them being chronic pain. In 2014, Pennsylvania had the ninth-highest rate of drug-abuse death, and the state is looking toward weed as a healthier alternative to pain pills. Maine is taking it a step further, seriously considering opioid addiction as one of the conditions for scoring a medical marijuana license.
Dr. Dustin Sulak, an expert in Maine on medical marijuana, told the Portland Press Herald:
We clearly have a major public health issue and we don’t currently have a good solution to it. Cannabis alone isn’t enough to completely solve this epidemic, but we need a treatment that can replace the opioids.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services reports that 80 million doses of opioid medication were dispensed in 2014, and in 2015, 272 residents of the state died from drug overdoses. Heroin use and prescription-pill abuse are inherently linked. The National Institute On Drug Abuse recently sponsored a contest for infographics on substance abuse.
The third-place winner, a team from Yale University, created the following image:
Researchers have found that opioid-related deaths are 25 percent lower in states with medical-marijuana laws. Advocates and doctors who support the legalization of marijuana say that cannabinoids “prevent people from building up a tolerance to opioids,” resulting in them ingesting fewer pills. Also, cannabinoids can help lessen the effects of opioid withdrawal. (Anecdotally: I’ve learned that it can also help lessen the effects of alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal.)
Marijuana use doesn’t come without its own inherent risks, though, as the counselor explained:
In order for you to quantify “dangerous,” it really depends on the way you define danger. As far as physical health reasons… online you can find a ton of information both saying that [marijuana use] is completely innocuous and that it can ruin your brain and lungs. Physically keep in mind that you are inhaling the vapors from a burnt substance, so you’re going to have some issues with your respiratory system especially if you are doing this fairly often. There are also withdrawal symptoms just like any drug. On the addiction and withdrawal side, it’s going to be more subtle than you see with harder drugs like opiates, heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine. I think one of the biggest dangers in it is the fact that it’s seen as not dangerous at all. And I think, often, there’s a fair mix of there not being enough emphasis on the danger and way too much emphasis on the danger, where as the middle ground isn’t covered that well.
What about the studies that show that states with legalized marijuana have a lower rate of death from opioid abuse?
“I would like to see several tests run that prove it’s not just correlation. It seems a little weird,” the counselor said. “With most treatment programs, the goal that people work towards is abstinence. I guess it comes down to do the ends justify the means, or is it a working harm-reduction program? Whatever’s going to help the person achieve the goals they want to in life and get better from their addiction, I’m all for that. Do I love the idea? Not necessarily. I think medically monitored detox programs have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing, and they’re able to do that without marijuana.”
While this skepticism is warranted, the idea of 100 percent abstinence just doesn’t seem realistic — it only takes one look at all the people smoking cigarettes at your local drug rehab to savvy that out. I tend to side with Matt Simon, the New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, who said that legalization “would reduce the amount of interaction with hard drug dealers, period.” That, combined with lower opioid rates in weed friendly states make me, a former addict myself, feel like legalization might be the first step to winning the war.