In November 2016, Arizona’s Prop 205, which would have legalized recreational cannabis, didn’t even come close to passing. Analysts blamed 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 substantial pile of money—half a million dollars—that Insys Therapeutics dumped into Arizonans For Responsible Drug Policy, which put out an aggressive anti-cannabis media campaign. It was one of the largest donations ever made to the group.
Maybe you aren’t familiar with Insys. They are the makers of Subsys fentanyl—a potent synthetic opioid that Dr. Sanjay Gupta, president of the American Pain Association, told HuffPost was “100 times stronger than morphine.” In 2017, the FBI began investigating Insys and asked anyone who received a prescription for the drug between March 2012 and December 2016 (typically cancer patients) to come forward and help the investigation by filling out a questionnaire. They said that several former Insys pharmaceutical executives and managers were arrested for “bribing medical practitioners in various states, many who operated pain clinics.” That’s not exactly the sort of company you expect to altruistically give $500,000 away just to “protect our kids and keep Arizona drug free,” as the anti-Prop 205 literature read.
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, on the market for some time opposed to the brand-new Syndros—have unpleasant side effects that aren’t found in natural cannabis.
That brings me back to why I brought this up in the first place. When all these arrests were going down in 2016, 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.”
Here’s the darkest part of the Insys story: Back in July 2016, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia found that in states with medical cannabis programs, a significantly lower number of painkillers were prescribed to patients. The study reviewed prescriptions filled through Medicare Part D and found the average doctor in those states prescribed 1,826 fewer daily doses of painkillers each year.
In New Mexico, we’ve had a pretty terrible time with opioid dependency and related deaths, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioid-involved overdose deaths have been declining since they peaked in 2014. And prescriptions for opioids have also dropped. There are many factors that would have had an effect on those stats, but it’s interesting to see that the University of Georgia study seems to have panned out. We’ve been seeing a mind-blowing growth trend for New Mexico’s medical cannabis program since around that time, and it shows no sign of stopping. If there is a correspondence between access to cannabis and lower opioid prescriptions, you can bet Big Pharma is getting hit with serious monetary damage from Big Weed.
The story of Insys isn’t just a bogeyman tale. Every year, we find ourselves holding our breath as lawmakers decide the fates of legalization bills. There are some very rich, very corrupt people out there who will fight tooth and nail to keep you or your neighbors from giving the competition a foothold. Remember this story. Remember how the Big Bad Wolf won, and don’t let it happen here.
Because we need it, folks. Not just because we’re poor and desperate for money (and good God, is our state poor and desperate for money). New Mexico should do this because our friends and family are suffering from this opioid epidemic, and legalizing cannabis is one easy way to alleviate this problem.