Another look at medical marijuana

Marijuana could be a cure for drug addiction.  That’s right: a cure.  Maybe.

This was one fascinating revelation from a recent presentation on the opioid epidemic.

In fairness to the speaker, the statement about marijuana was a minor point in a generally grim presentation about the growing problem of addiction to and death from prescription opioid drugs. The emphasis on marijuana is mine.

The speaker was Scott Goold, an economist who recently trained as a Community Addiction Recovery Specialist with Project Echo, a University of New Mexico medical education program.  Project Echo provides specialty training and expertise to health care professionals throughout the state via distance learning.

The news about prescription pain medication keeps getting worse.  According to Goold, the problem is, in part, that opioid medications are really effective at relieving pain.  Someone recovering from an injury might want help with pain for several weeks.  But it takes only about two weeks for physical dependence to occur.  People with injuries can become addicted to these drugs while doing what seems perfectly reasonable.

There is also growing evidence that pain medication in combination with certain kinds of other medications, all in legal doses, can sometimes cause death.  According to medical evidence Goold cited, when actor Heath Ledger died in 2008, his body contained only legally prescribed amounts of drugs – but there were six different drugs.

Because pain medication is so widely prescribed, and because doctors often don’t counsel patients enough about the dangers, addiction has become an all-too-common side effect of injuries  This creates a problem for patients and adds extra burden to our overloaded health care system.

Marijuana, Goold said, has two effects on the body:  it can cause a high, and it relieves pain.  It’s possible to select strains of pot that have more of the pain-relieving compounds and fewer of the compounds that make users feel intoxicated.   So it can work as a pain relief substitute – either preventing addiction or helping to relieve it.  It’s not an opioid and does not cause the same addiction problem.

What makes this newsworthy is that it comes at a time when increasing legal access to marijuana is on the national mind. Marijuana’s usefulness for post-traumatic stress disorder was recently reaffirmed in New Mexico’s own medical marijuana program.  Meanwhile, Colorado, our neighbor to the north, has passed an initiative legalizing small quantities of marijuana for recreational use.

A few predictions can be made about the effects of the Colorado law:  Unless the federal government intervenes, marijuana use in  Colorado will increase, Colorado tourism will increase, the availability of marijuana will affect border resort towns like Durango, and one way or another the effects will spill over into New Mexico.

And then there’s Gary Johnson.

Our former governor, who was the Libertarian Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, presents cogent arguments for legalizing marijuana.  His running mate was James P. Gray, a retired California judge who has been a leading crusader for drug policy reform and is author of a 2001 book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed: A Judicial Indictment Of War On Drugs.  While their presidential run is over, we can expect to hear more from both of them on this subject.

Prescription opioids cause more deaths in New Mexico than illegal drugs.  Drug addiction, we must remember, is both a health problem and a crime problem – and it costs us money both ways.  It makes communities less safe for all of us and wastes the lives that get caught up the criminal justice system.  If there’s a serious chance that marijuana can help relieve pain and prevent needless tragedy, we ought to be open-minded to that possibility.

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