The nation is currently at a crossroads when it comes to addressing the epidemic known as opioid addiction.
According to recent data, a combined 33,091 overdose deaths relating to prescription pain relievers and heroin occurred in 2015. While communities in states across the nation continue to grapple with what public health officials have deemed “the worst drug crisis in American history,” some states are experimenting with a provocative solution: pain relief through marijuana.
West Virginia, for example, took an interesting and perhaps surprising step yesterday, when the governor signed into law the Medical Cannabis Act, which will provide legal access to medical marijuana as a possible new method of pain treatment.
West Virginia is no stranger to the tragic consequences of drug addiction, with overdose rates eight to 10 times higher than anywhere else in the United States and the highest opioid overdose death rate in the country. Between 2007 and 2012, more than 1,728 West Virginians died due to overdoses of hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Opioids like Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin were once seen by medical experts as a safe method to treat chronic pain without the risk of addiction, and communities across the country were flooded with a wave of the potent pills.
Although West Virginia’s population is a modest 1.8 million, during a six-year period, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million painkillers into the state — enough to supply 433 pain pills per resident. In the rural town of Kermit, West Virginia — where the population is 394 — more than 9 million hydrocodone pills were shipped to a single pharmacy during a two-year period.
While these pills can be used to effectively treat short-term pain, patients may quickly develop a tolerance to the medication and require increasingly stronger doses to achieve the same effect. As a result, many people turn to illegal drugs like heroin to deliver faster relief, but the effects of heroin “treatment” are far worse than the disease. Heroin is often laced with fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and even the smallest dose can be lethal.
On Aug. 15, 2016, for example, emergency personnel in Huntington, West Virginia, responded to 27 heroin overdoses in a four-hour timespan. According to local health officials in Huntington, the city deals with 18 to 20 overdoses every single week.
Some experts, such as Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, have argued that less harmful drugs like marijuana could help ease addicts off their opioid treatment and reduce cravings for harder drugs like heroin and oxycodone. His argument is worth considering.
A recent study by Professor Daniel Clauw, director of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, found that patients with chronic pain who used medical marijuana reduced their opioid use by 64 percent.
Of course, not all medical experts support using marijuana as a substitute pain reliever. They caution that contrary to the growing perception of marijuana are harmless, regular use does sometimes have counterproductive consequences — especially for younger users.
Furthermore, our knowledge of how to prescribe marijuana — in what dosage, how frequently it should be used — is limited. Whenever possible, pain should be treated using non-pharmaceutical treatment, and Congress should investigate ways to remove the incentives to over-prescribe drugs for pain relief in our healthcare system.
People in the West Virginia are dealing with significant pain issues, however, and responsible policymakers must consider the possibility that allowing the use of marijuana for pain relief will cause fewer long-term policy challenges than dealing with the repercussions of opioid misuse.
The state’s decision to explore other options to curb overdoses is an important signal to other states that experience the same problem. And as the “laboratories of democracy” experiment with treatment methods to help those most in pain, we will soon see what methods are truly effective.
The motto of West Virginia is “mountaineers are always free.” The state may have taken an important step toward helping free its citizens from debilitating drug addiction, and it should proceed, but proceed with caution.
Jordan Richardson is a senior policy analyst at the Charles Koch Institute.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.