Buss: Legalize pot, curb opioid use

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Michigan will likely get another shot at legalizing pot next fall. A petition is being circulated to collect signatures right now. Legalization efforts have stuttered for the past several years, made even more frustrating because many other states have made much progress in the same time.

But this go-around the wind may be in its sails, albeit in a morbid way.

Drug overdose deaths in 2016 likely exceeded 59,000, “the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States,” according to preliminary data from the New York Times. Doctors have been prescribing opioid painkillers like candy, and the Drug War has failed to keep more powerful opioids off the streets.

In Michigan, an average of five residents die every day from opioid overdoses. Ottawa County experienced an 85 percent increase in opioid-related overdoses in one year.

Those numbers are astounding. If lawmakers are serious about curbing this crisis, they must embrace every option available.

Marijuana is an alternative to opioid painkillers, which start so many people on a path to heroin, and ultimately death. There has yet to be a recorded death from overdosing on pot; its effects are milder than hard painkillers, and it’s safer when used recreationally than fully-legal alcohol, the drug of choice for so many who’ve kept marijuana an outcast.

A University of Michigan study last year found patients using medical marijuana to control pain reduced their use of opioids 64 percent. The study, which followed 185 patients from an Ann Arbor dispensary, also found marijuana caused fewer side effects and improved quality of life 45 percent.

Yes, medical marijuana has been legal here for almost a decade. But the law is wrought with problems, and state lawmakers show little interest in cleaning it up, much less in broadening legal access. For those who suffer from a life-threatening addiction to legal or illegal opioids, simply attempting to curb that addiction is not on the state’s list of qualified medical marijuana uses.

Time after time patients are sucked into the black hole of opioid use because of a prescription. While Michigan is cracking down on prescribers, that doesn’t help remove the stigma for those who want to try marijuana as a readily available alternative, and keep their jobs. (An employee in Michigan with pot in his or her system won’t be offered any protections under the medical marijuana law, unlike those operating under the influence of legal opioids).

Legalizing recreational use is a sure way to help curb opioid overdose deaths. And it would be an honest approach to the fact that not everyone taking opioid painkillers is doing so for pain. Those drugs are obviously used recreationally — and often, fatally.

In Colorado, where pot has been legal for a few years, deaths from traditional opioid painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone declined in 2016 by about 27 percent. Marijuana helps people avoid trying strong, quickly addictive painkillers in the first place. That’s why it’s critical to broaden accessibility to, and understanding of, the drug.

At the federal level, removing it as a Schedule I drug would allow researchers to more fully understand all the possible applications for weed preliminary studies have pointed to.

Legalization has been a rumor here for too long. Against the backdrop of record opioid addiction, leaders in this state have a responsibility to let Michigan residents decide marijuana’s fate.