ALTernative Facts: Candyman

One of the arguments lawmakers have used to support legalization of cannabis is that taking cannabis away from the drug dealer supply chain will reduce the likelihood that those dealer’s customers will “upgrade” to harder drugs or opiates. Customers buying illegal weed, the argument goes, now have regular contact with a dealer, who is essentially a salesman, motivated to raise regular customers to higher value propositions – more expensive, more addictive substances.

So we asked a few drug dealers, each of whom, not surprisingly, only spoke on condition of anonymity. While there are apparently some operation that work as described above, mostly that’s not how it works – dealers subspecialize and network with other dealers. “Most pot dealers don’t want to be involved with the heavier stuff. Especially now. We might make a referral, or do a very small quantity, but the risks are a totally different ballgame.” Said another broker, “I can send you to someone, but there are different guys for pot, for hard stuff, for the bad stuff that involves needles and for pharma. The pharma guys are the sketchiest.”

Now, that’s anecdotal evidence on a very small scale – not a scientific study, not even a reliable business analysis. But it’s a reality check that might seem to take the wind out of the sails of that argument. EXCEPT…

Two multi-year, statistically significant studies were recently released in an issue of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association – as reputable as it gets in medicine) indicating that in states where cannabis has been legalized, opiate consumption HAS gone down. A study of Medicaid patients found 5.88% fewer opioid prescriptions per capita in states with medical marijuana, and 6.38% fewer in states where recreational use is legal. A second study focused on Medicare patients found a similar drop – they focused on hydrocodone (down 17.4% in states with medical marijuana) and morphine (down 20.7%). You can check their methodology at jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2677000 and jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2676999

This may have nothing to do with weaning citizens of their drug dealers, but more directly with cannabis’ ability to wean them from their legalized, certified dealers – big pharma and the MDs who feed them. Many of those who end up addicted to opiates begin with pain prescriptions – that breaks the seal in a lot of cases, lubricating the slippery slope that ends on the other side of the law, in the swamplands of addiction.

Now, Medicare and Medicaid don’t encompass everyone, and these studies looked only at prescriptions, which leaves out the whole world of illegal activities. So each study concludes that it would be stupid (not JAMA’s exact words) to do exactly what we’re doing here – try to draw any broader conclusions from this data. They’re right of course – more studies are needed. But these results are consistent and promising, and tentatively support yet one more compelling argument for legal marijuana – that it saves lives.

Pull Quote: According the CDC, more than 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdose in 2016, up 28% from the preceding year.

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