Sean Spicer Wrongly Links Recreational Marijuana With Opioid Crisis

February 24, 2017 | Geoff Marshall

By Debra Borchardt for Forbes

We prepared this document to help inform Congress about four important changes in the DEA’s positions on medical cannabis that could have an impact on their policy making decisions this session: cannabis is not a 'gateway drug' and it does not cause cognitive decline, psychosis or lung cancer. - Beth Collins

White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to link recreational marijuana to the opioid addiction crisis happening in the country, but the facts don't support that connection. During today's press conference, Spicer was asked about marijuana and how the new administration planned to address states that have legalized it. Spicer said that the president understood that patients suffering from certain diseases got comfort from drugs like medical marijuana.

Then Spicer went on to say, "There's a big difference between that and recreational marijuana. I think that when you see the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people. There is still a federal law we need to abide by in terms of when it comes to recreational marijuana."

In January, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a review of 10,000 medical marijuana studies published since 1999, showing that there was substantial evidence supporting the use of marijuana or its extracts for the treatment of chronic pain. It is widely regarded that the opioid crisis was spurred by big pharmaceutical companies that liberally prescribed the addictive drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin, not marijuana consumers.

In fact, states with legalized marijuana have been found to have fewer prescription overdose deaths. John Hopkins published a report in August 2014 that found "the annual number of deaths from prescription drug overdose is 25% lower than in states where medical marijuana remains illegal."

“In absolute terms, states with a medical marijuana law had about 1,700 fewer opioid painkiller overdose deaths in 2010 than would be expected based on trends before the laws were passed,” says the study’s lead author, Marcus Bachhuber, MD, of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Pennsylvania.

The report went on to say that while legal marijuana can be controversial, there are unintended benefits as well. “As our awareness of the addiction and overdose risks associated with use of opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin grows, individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal,” said Colleen L. Barry, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School and senior author of the study.

At the time of the study, only three states had legalized medical marijuana: California, Oregon and Washington. Currently there are over 25 states with some form of legalized medical marijuana. Furthermore, a new Quinnipiac poll found that 93% of all Americans now approve of legalizing medical marijuana and 59% support making marijuana legal for other uses. That means five out of seven Americans regardless of political affiliation are opposed to the government enforcing federal prohibition laws.

Americans for Safe Access, a national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring safe and legal access to medical cannabis for therapeutic use and research, filed a legal request with the Department of Justice last year, demanding that the DEA immediately update and remove factually inaccurate information about cannabis from their website and materials. This misinformation included language that claimed marijuana was a "gateway" drug. Beth Collins, Senior Director of Government Relations and External Affairs at Americans for Safe Access, said, “We prepared this document to help inform Congress about four important changes in the DEA’s positions on medical cannabis that could have an impact on their policy making decisions this session: cannabis is not a 'gateway drug' and it does not cause cognitive decline, psychosis or lung cancer.” The DEA removed some of the false information, but some remains. It must be the information that Spicer is using.

Tom Angell, Chairman of the Marijuana Majority, said it would be unwise for President Trump to break away from his pledges to leave cannabis policy decisions to the states. “If the administration is looking for ways to become less popular, cracking down on voter-approved marijuana laws would be a great way to do it," Angell said. "With a clear and growing majority of the country now supporting legalization, reneging on his promises would be a political disaster and huge distraction from the rest of the president’s agenda.”

Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project agrees with Angell's assessment of Americans' stance on legalized marijuana. "People do not want federal prohibition laws to be enforced in states that have rejected them," Tvert says."There appears to be near universal support for allowing the use of medical marijuana, and the majority in favor of broader reform is growing quickly. Our country might be divided on some issues, but more and more it is looking like marijuana policy is not one of them."

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