U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already made it clear he's skeptical about the medical benefits of cannabis, but on Wednesday he singled out one claim for criticism: that marijuana could be part of the solution to the opioid epidemic.
"I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use," Sessions said during a speech on crime and public safety. "But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable." He continued:
"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life."
To be clear, drug policy reform advocates haven't argued that marijuana legalization would solve the drug crisis. Rather, several recent studies have offered evidence that liberal marijuana laws are associated with fewer opioid prescriptions and lower rates of opioid-related overdoses.
It's not about trading heroin for marijuana, as Sessions said. Access to marijuana appears to prevent some people from forming addictions to painkillers in the first place.
In a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that states where marijuana is legal saw 27 percent fewer fatal opioid overdoses than states where pot is prohibited. That same year, a study published in the journal Health Affairs found that doctors in states where marijuana is legal prescribed about 2,000 fewer doses of painkillers each year than in non-legal states.
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health looked at traffic fatality data from 1999 to 2013, identifying the number of fatal crashes where opioids were involved. States that legalized medical marijuana had fewer instances of opioid-involved traffic fatalities compared to those that haven't legalized the plant.
"Although previous studies have suggested that [medical marijuana laws] are associated with decreased opioid overdose mortality rates at the state level, our study suggests one plausible mechanism underlying this association: in states with [medical marijuana laws], fewer individuals are using opioids," the study authors concluded.
Researchers have emphasized the importance of future research into this relationship. But astonishing as it may seem to the attorney general, scientists have a theory about why legalization appears to have this effect: Cannabis effectively treats chronic and neuropathic pain — and when patients have legal access to marijuana, some will choose it as an alternative to prescription painkillers.