Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, killing an estimated 59,000 people last year across the United States. It’s the worst public health crisis in a generation, and the government is scrambling to find a way to get millions of citizens off heroin and prescription painkillers — the drugs that account for the vast majority of deaths — and onto something less lethal.
But according to a new study, the solution is obvious: weed.
A Canadian researcher at the University of Victoria examined existing scientific literature and found “a compelling amount of evidence” that marijuana could be used as an alternative to opioids, creating “significant positive impacts on public health and safety.”
The study, published Friday in Harm Reduction Journal, describes a “substitution effect” in states with medical marijuana, suggesting that people who want to quit using prescription opioids and other powerful pharmaceuticals have already started switching to cannabis.
The paper cites a previous study that found states with medical marijuana had nearly 25 percent fewer fatal overdoses compared to states where pot remains strictly illegal. Other research has shown that Medicare prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs declined precipitously in states that have legalized marijuana.
“The argument in favor of recognizing medical cannabis as a first-line option in the treatment of chronic pain is informed by science, common sense, and simple compassion,” writes researcher Philippe Lucas. “If patients never start using opioids, there is no risk their use might progress to dependence or overdose.”
The Trump administration is still deciding how to respond to the opioid crisis, but a White House commission led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has called for the pharmaceutical industry and the National Institutes of Health to collaborate on “the development of new, non-opioid pain relievers.”
As previously reported by VICE News, the White House commission received “more than 7,800 public comments” calling for marijuana to be considered as part of the solution to the opioid crisis, but so far that input has been ignored. Christie has been a vocal critic of marijuana legalization, calling it “beyond stupidity” and arguing that it could exacerbate the opioid crisis — not improve the situation.
The new study noted that “cannabis alone” is no panacea for the opioid epidemic, but it also concluded expanded use of the drug probably wouldn’t hurt anything, either. After all, it’s impossible to overdose on weed.