Alibi V.26 No.5 • Feb 2-8, 2017 

Baked Goods

The Real Drug War

Cannabis vs. opioids

Baked Goods
Rob M.

Only one of the five states who voted on legalizing recreational cannabis in November turned it down. Arizona's Prop 205 didn't even come close to winning. Analysts were blaming the loss on the proposition being unbalanced in favor of existing medical cannabis dispensaries (a provision in Prop 205 gave medical dispensaries first dibs on retail licenses, leaving only about 20 licenses available for new entrepreneurs). But one very crucial (and creepy) factor that people seem to just gloss over was the pile of money—half a million dollars—that Insys Therapeutics dumped into the Arizonans For Responsible Drug Policy, who put on an aggressive anti-cannabis media campaign. It was one of the largest donations made to the group.

Maybe you aren't familiar with Insys. They are the makers of Subsys fentanyl—a potent synthetic opioid which Dr. Sanjay Gupta, president of the American Pain Association, told the Huffington Post was “100 times stronger than morphine.” Earlier this month, the FBI was asking for anyone who received a prescription between March 2012 and December 2016 for the drug—usually given to cancer patients—to come forward and fill out a questionnaire that would help them in an investigation of Insys. They said several pharmaceutical executives and managers formerly employed by the company were arrested in early December for “bribing medical practitioners in various states, many who operated pain clinics.” Not exactly the type of company you would expect to altruistically give $500,000 away just to “protect our kids and keep Arizona drug free,” as the anti-Prop 205 literature reads.

To me, it just sounds like one drug dealer worrying about the new guy setting up shop in the neighborhood. And I'm not saying that flippantly, either. Insys manufactures both Marinol and Syndros, synthetic forms of THC that—at least in the case of Marinol, which has been on the market for some time as opposed to the brand-new Syndros—have had unpleasant side effects that aren't found in natural cannabis.

Which brings me back to why I brought it up in the first place. (No, I'm not just bitching to hear my own voice.) When all these arrests were going down in December, FBI Assistant Director Diego Rodriguez said in a statement, “This case should be something the medical industry and the general public should pay close attention to because it’s one of the reasons we’re experiencing an epidemic of overdoses and deaths in this country.”

New Mexico has a serious issue with opioid addiction and related overdose deaths. In 2015, the good news was we were only the eighth worst state for overdose deaths. It was good news because in 2014 we were the second. But before you slap someone on the back, keep in mind that some of that drop in ranking came from the rise in overdose deaths experienced across the entire nation. Over the past year, we've started taking the issue more seriously it seems, and just this month, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced the launch of “Project OPEN: Opioid Prevention & Education Network,” aimed at better educating attorneys, policy advisers and the general public about the opioid epidemic.

Here's the darkest part of the Insys story: Back in July 2016, a study conducted by the University of Georgia found that in states that have medical cannabis programs, a significantly lower number of painkillers were prescribed to patients. The study reviewed prescriptions filled through Medicare Part D and found that the average doctor prescribed an average of 1,826 fewer daily doses of painkillers per year.

Interesting. Let's go back to those numbers we were so proud of: the drop in overdose deaths in N.M. This actually coincides with the growth trend of our state's medical cannabis program. Surprised? Imagine if it was available to everyone. Not every opioid addict has a prescription, you know.

The story of Insys isn't just a boogeyman tale. There is a very real possibility that in the coming years, we will find ourselves voting on the legalization of recreational cannabis. There will be some very rich and very corrupt people out there who will fight tooth and nail to keep you and your neighbors from allowing in what is basically their competition. Remember this story. Remember how the Big Bad Wolf won, and don't let it happen here.

Because we need it, folks. Not just on account of we're poor and desperate for money (and good God, are we poor and desperate for money), but because we have friends and family who are suffering from this opioid epidemic and legalizing cannabis is one very easy way to help fight this problem.