Marijuana use is linked to an "increased risk" of opioid abuse, according to a study released by The White House's opioid commission.
The commission, led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was created to address the increasing number of opioid deaths in the United States, and the findings of the study earned ire from marijuana advocates. The White House declared the opioid crisis a "public health emergency" on Oct 26.
In his letter to the president, Governor Chris Christie wrote that marijuana use “led to a two and a half times greater chance that the marijuana user would become an opioid user and abuser,” citing “recent research” from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the nation's largest medical research agency.
According to the National institute on Drug Abuse, however, two recent studies found connections between medical marijuana availability and a reduction in opioid use. The first study, according to the NIH, found that each year after medical marijuana was legalized in a state, the number of opioid overdose deaths in that state decreased. The other study found that access to medical marijuana dispensaries "is associated with lower levels of opioid prescribing...and reduction in prescription opioid overdose deaths." A request to the NIH about the study cited by Gov. Christie was not returned by the time this article was published.
Erik Altieri, executive director of cannabis advocacy organization NORML, denounced Gov. Christie's statement, referring to it as an opinion, not a fact.
"Governor Christie has 0% credibility on drug policy, or any other policy, for that matter," said Altieri via email. "States that have medicinal and recreational cannabis laws on the books see lower rates of overdose, lower rates of use, and lower rates of opioids being prescribed to patients.”
Altieri's statement is actually backed up by a 2017 study out of the University of Georgia, which found that areas with dispensary openings saw, "a 20 percentage point relative decrease in painkiller treatment admissions over the first two years of dispensary operations," and a 2016 study by Castlight Health which found that states with legalized medical marijuana had a much lower rate (2.8%) of opioid abuse than states without legalized medical marijuana (5.4%).
The White House commission's position was also contradicted by members of Congress. A few hours after the commission released its study, Oregon state representative Earl Blumenauer (D), one of the members of Congress' "pot lobby," posted on Twitter that he was joining with the group "Safe Access" in "demanding patients receive better access to safer alternatives for pain mgmt like mmj [medical marijuana]."
Also contradicting the White House's report was testimony in July 2016 by Dr. Susan Weis, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that statement, she pointed out that initial research data shows "a reduction in heroin craving after treatment with cannabidoil," and called for more research to verify these preliminary findings.
Former Baltimore 'Drug Czar" Mike Gimbel, however, said that "marijuana is besides the point when it comes to opioid addiction."
"You just had surgery, you just broke a leg, you’re in serious pain – and the doctor is going to say ‘hey smoke a joint?’ Ridiculous," satGimbel, a former opioid user and addict himself. "It’s never going to happen."
He doesn't doubt that marijuana could potentially help with minor pain, like back problems. But as for more serious medical situations, “I've never seen that marijuana can relieve the kind of pain that will lead people to use oxycodone or vicodin," he said.
Gimbel wants the opioid conversation to turn away from marijuana completely.
"You can't solve a drug problem with more drugs," he said (including overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan to the list of drugs that won’t help the opioid epidemic).
"Focus on where the problem is,” Gimbel said passionately. “The problem right now is we have people overdosing and we have no place to send anybody. And that’s what the president and the White House should be focusing on right now.”