Kentucky ranks fifth among states suffering from opioid abuse. In 2016, 1,404 people died of drug overdose in the state, for a death rate of 33.5 per 100,000. Opioids were the cause of 989 of those deaths; most of the rest were caused by heroin and the Fentanyl with which it is often cut. Those addicted to prescription opioids often turn to heroin.
In 2015, 4.47 million opioid prescriptions were written in the state, which has a population of 4.45 million. In contrast, the DEA acknowledges that marijuana has not caused even one recorded case of overdose death, but marijuana remains illegal in the state.
In a 2013 poll, 78 percent of Kentuckians supported legalization of medical marijuana. While numerous legalization bills were introduced in the General Assembly, none passed. The state attorney general’s office has sued opioid manufacturers many times, but the General Assembly recently failed to pass a bill that would put a tax on opioid pills. This year, HB166 was introduced to the House; as part of a medical cannabis program, it proposes it excise taxes on cultivators, processors, producers, and distributors.
The state’s opioid crisis has yet to diminish. According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy:
Substance abuse, particularly the diversion and abuse of prescription drugs, is one of the most critical public health and safety issues facing Kentucky. Over the past decade, the number of Kentuckians who die from drug overdoses has steadily climbed to more than 1,500 each year, exacting a devastating toll on families, communities, social services and economic stability and growth.
In the midst of this continuing public health crisis, evidence continues to mount that cannabis is an effective treatment for neuropathic pain, which is one condition for which opioids are often prescribed. While medical research is equivocal on the long-term effectiveness of opioids in treating chronic nerve pain, it is clear that opioids are addictive. On the other hand, the addictiveness of cannabis is in doubt.
Cannabis is also promising as a treatment for opioid addiction. In a recent report published in the medical journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, the authors conclude that “emerging evidence…suggests that cannabis may play a role in ameliorating the impact” of opioid addiction. In short, people who seeking to end their addiction to opioids may be helped by cannabis. Further, because cannabis has an excellent safety record, the use of “cannabis as an adjunct or alternative treatment” for opioid abuse warrants “further exploration.” While few people go to rehab for marijuana addiction, each year thousands of Kentuckians go to rehab for opiate abuse. If medical cannabis were legal in Kentucky, it could be studied as a treatment to wean people off opioids. One drug in current use to reduce opiate addiction is methadone, which itself can be addictive and can kill by overdose. Buprenorphine, another drug currently in use to treat opiate addiction, also has a safety record worse than that of cannabis.
Another scientific study has shown that opioid abuse and death goes down in states with medical cannabis programs, and that more liberal programs work better to reduce opioid abuse than strict ones. Specifically, the study found that medical cannabis programs:
reduce the daily doses filled for opioid analgesics among Medicare Part-D and Medicaid enrollees, as well as population-wide opioid overdose deaths….As states have become more stringent in their regulation of dispensaries, the protective value generally has fallen. These findings suggest that broader access to medical marijuana facilitates substitution of marijuana for powerful and addictive opioids.
Public opinion polls and medical research have laid out a clear path for Kentucky. Legalization, regulation, and taxation of medical cannabis offers a means toward reducing the state’s devastating opioid epidemic.
What do you think? Will the General Assembly and governor pass a medical legalization bill? Leave a comment below.