Though opioid addiction is something of a newfangled disease in national conversation, it is a fatally familiar face here in the Southwest. Opioids have maintained their toxic presence in our communities for over a decade, particularly in rural counties struggling with poverty and unemployment. For once, we are truly ahead of the curve—though the rest of the country is quickly, tragically gaining ground.
Many questions have been asked about the cause of this recent inundation of opioid addictions. While I wouldn’t dare to presume cause, statistics do point fairly damningly to a corrupt health care system that has run rampant since the introduction and promotion of opioid painkillers in the late ’90s.
In 2015, United States health care providers issued an average of 70 opioid prescriptions per every 100 people; that amounts to some 1.4 million prescriptions in our state, and nearly 225 million prescriptions nationwide.
Statistics also show that around a quarter of those patients will misuse their prescription. Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder. A whopping 80 percent of all heroin users got their first taste for opioids from prescribed pills.
Some nationally-commended policies have successfully managed to check the perilous ascent of opioid-related deaths over the past few years in New Mexico—but only barely, and the death toll keeps on ticking here and everywhere. These successes have led to stabilization, not solution; the problem might not be getting worse, but it sure as hell isn’t getting better.
As long as this irresponsible and aggressive over-prescription of opioids like oxycodone, fentanyl and Vicodin continues, programs intended to educate, treat and reduce harm will be fruitless ventures.
Even the $4.6 billion allocated in the spending plan signed by the president this year will not, and can not, reverse the rising tide; while research and treatment are fantastic things to invest in long-term, we need immediate solutions.
The best way to prevent opioid addiction is to stop introducing opioids into the lives and systems of individuals. It’s that simple. The onus falls on health care providers and policy-makers alike: stop prescribing inappropriately and allow patients to pursue other treatments that can help with chronic pain and trauma management.
One promising treatment is medical marijuana. Many of the conditions that qualify for a painkilling prescription have been proven to benefit from the use of medical marijuana: migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic muscle spasms, arthritis, cancer and more. Similarly, many of those who turn to opioids to deal with their own disorders—such as PTSD—have realized remarkable relief through medical marijuana.
A series of studies have shown that the advent of medical marijuana has coincided with markedly lower abuse and overdose rates in legalized states. The nearly 25 percent reduction is correlation, not causation—but it is a promising development that deserves further consideration.
Maybe unsurprisingly, but not any less discouraging, the federal government has closed the door to that route, drawing parallels between the current push for legalization and the negligently impulsive propaganda that ignited the current opioid crisis back in the ’90s.
This is a false equivocation for many reasons—there is far more known about this naturally-occurring plant (which has been around for centuries) than a drug concocted in a laboratory and pushed onto the public, for one.
More importantly, though, the research we do possess on marijuana has demonstrated without question that it is both low-risk and effective in treating a wide range of conditions and disorders.
Nay-saying arguments depend on two things: a lack of “sophisticated outcome data” and the supposed potential for marijuana to be abused. The first is a circular argument that needles its way back to Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which officially outlawed marijuana as a Schedule I drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” We lack the data simply because the government banned the research which would prove that scheduling wrong.
The second argument relies on stereotypes of lazy, unaccomplished stoners—an assumption that ignores a rich history of high-flying and proud pot smokers who have used the plant to help themselves in any number of capacities.
And that is the second fatal, facile flaw of the argument against the legalization and research into marijuana: an oversimplification that groups all marijuana products together without realizing or admitting their intricate differences.
The popularization of CBD has opened a dialogue about the contrast between it and THC, but there are a host of other cannabinoids—with psychoactive and non-psychoactive effects—that we are barely beginning to explore.
These compounds react with one another in a multitude of ways, many of which we have little to no understanding of as of yet. Once again, that is because all medical research has been shut down almost entirely for nearly 50 years—a period in which big pharmaceutical companies have taken over and introduced far more damaging drugs to our nearly-debilitated communities.
As elected officials squabble and stammer over “appropriate” solutions to the opioid epidemic that took nearly 50,000 American lives last year, the majority of the country—nearly 2/3 of the population by some estimates—realizes that the answer might be in front of us. It’s been in front of us this whole time; it’s growing beneath our very feet.
But still ordinary people are forced to wait and watch as communities crumble and loved ones fester in the dungeons of prison and addiction, waiting for the country to come to its senses.