Could Marijuana Be A Solution to the Heroin Overdose Epidemic?

October 27th 2014

Lindsay Haskell

The case for marijuana as a medicinal boon keeps getting better, with new research from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute revealing it can actually mitigate brain injuries and help people with brain trauma live longer. In addition, medical marijuana has been linked to a decrease in prescription painkiller overdose deaths, since marijuana is often used as a substitute for these opioids. Looking long-term, if medical marijuana becomes a regular alternative for prescription painkillers, it could mean big things for drug addiction and overdose rates overall. Prescription painkillers are often seen as a gateway to heroin, since heroin and opioid prescriptions have similar chemical properties and affect the same brain systems. In fact, a 2014 survey showed that out of 2,797 heroin addicts, 75% reported being introduced to heroin through prescription opioids. Perhaps by encouraging marijuana instead of highly addictive opioids, we can start to tackle the increasing prescription drug and heroin overdose death toll

Despite marijuana's clear health benefits, 27.6% of drug offenders were incarcerated for marijuana-related charges between October 2012 and September 2013. But the public is tiring of such statistics;  a recent Pew survey showed that 67% of Americans believe the government should focus more on providing treatment for drug abusers rather than prosecuting them. 

Of course, harder drugs, such as heroin, seem more problematic. But is prosecution the answer?

The answer is no.  Despite our persistent 'war on drugs,' in New York City the number of heroin overdose deaths has more than doubled in the last three years alone. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder called the rise in heroin overdose deaths "an urgent and growing public health crisis" and that's exactly what it is - a public health issue, not a criminal issue. Despite this fact, many drug users are still prosecuted for their addiction. Only 29 states, plus Washington, D.C., have a "Good Samaritan" law that allows a drug addict or his or her friend to call 911 for medical assistance for an overdose without facing criminal charges. Even states with this law, however, sometimes provide only limited immunity and can still leave drug addicts vulnerable to criminal prosecution. Maybe we should take a lesson from Vermont. The Governor, Peter Shumlin, is taking steps to cut down on the criminalization of drug users by enacting revolutionary changes to how police deal with heroin users. The state's new policies will include giving heroin users the chance to enroll in treatment to avoid prosecution. 

The next steps we as citizens can take is to elect the lawmakers who will prioritize treatment over punishment. Voting for legislators who support marijuana legalization and Good Samaritan laws is a good start. You can pledge to vote on social media here.